Covid-19 ruined the global supply chain. It’s time for a rethink

Britt Spencer

As the pandemic has revealed, while global trade worked well when trade routes were running smoothly, disruptions to them can lead to chaos. In a 2018 report on the future of food supply chains, for example, the consultancy ARUP found that only eight per cent of companies in the sector believed that they had a genuinely agile supply chain that could respond to disruption quickly.
In 2021, we will see the long supply chains and just-in-time principles of manufacturing and retail turned on their heads. And, as global supply chains continue to be disrupted by the pandemic, we will also change our attitudes to the idea of repairing rather than replacing goods.

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Technology has already improved the way we move things between our cities and states. Pressures to reduce the carbon emissions of freight have led to better route planning, lower fuel costs and more intelligent use of different and less-polluting delivery mechanisms. Companies such as DHL and UPS have been at the forefront of this trend, investing in logistics startups and working on in-house innovations, such as indoor robots and an online platform for freight forwarding. In 2021, we will see this trend continue.
Drones and robotics will also have a small role to play in improving delivery mechanisms. In 2020, Amazon expanded its trial of Amazon Scout delivery robots in the US to two more cities. And, in 2021, San Francisco-based Starship Technologies, which is already running trials of autonomous delivery robots in Washington, DC, Irvine, California, and Milton Keynes in the UK, plans to expand to 100 US universities.
Despite these advances, we won’t, however, see the end of human delivery drivers just yet. Costs and challenges around management will preclude drones and robots from becoming the norm. In the UK, regulations around where drones can and can’t be flown could reduce their uptake. And not all delivery robots are as yet smart enough to be able to adapt to some of the challenges of real-world cities. In Milton Keynes, one of Starship Technologies’ robots fell into a canal.
In manufacturing, the core technology – 3D printing – that was heralded in its early days as a kind of superheated version of the just-in-time system, will expand, but it, like drones and robots, is also proving slow to live up to its promise. Many sectors have concerns about the speed of 3D printing and whether 3D-printed parts will be reliable.
As we wait for technology to catch up with our needs (and for the disruption caused by the pandemic to end) we will discover other ways to make supply chains more robust. These will include a new emphasis on repairing items rather than replacing them. Responding to consumer concerns about the high level of electronic waste in the world, some companies are now moving in this direction. In 2020, Amsterdam-based Fairphone launched the Fairphone 3+ smartphone, which can easily be repaired and upgraded by the user. In 2021, we will see other companies entering this sector.

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We will use technology to improve the way we manufacture goods and move them around the world – and we will, I hope, change our attitude towards replacing items and instead look to repairing them. The pandemic has revealed the fragility of the supply chains the developed world has relied on for decades. Changing the ways we manage them will be key to creating a more sustainable world and a thriving economy.
Bridget Rosewell is commissioner at the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission

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