At one time or other, everyone in the newspaper printing industry experiences sleepless nights worrying about running low on paper, plates, ink or one of the many consumables necessary for daily operation. We’ve all faced minor shipping challenges when we need material in a week and lose sleep as the supply runs into a critical stage. Vendors nearly always come through at the 11th hour.
Monitoring a tight inventory, a good manager would set a reorder limit based on stock on hand and reorder consumables at a specific point.
Now, in a post-pandemic world, the supply chain has changed — but not for the better.
I recently experienced the effects of a failing supply chain — with strapping, in this case. For years now, an order was a week away, but this time it was different — 12 to 14 weeks! Of course, the sensible solution to my problem was to call another vendor. Still, after calling a half-dozen other vendors and hearing the same thing, the reality of a post-pandemic supply chain started to settle in.
As every other consumable we use regularly followed suit, I realized this was a wake-up call for our industry. It’s easy to become comfortable with a supply chain that ran smoothly for many years, right up to the day it runs off the tracks, like now.
I made a few calls to counterparts and vendors in the industry to see what they were experiencing. I wasn’t alone in my concern.
My first call was to a good friend who manages a large print site for a major publisher in the Midwest. I explained my “strapping challenge,” and he was having the same problem. He recently borrowed strapping from another group site to hold him over until his next shipment arrived. He said most of his consumables were arriving late, but he was eventually receiving them. He said he was becoming more aware of stock-on-hand and the need to plan differently.
Another counterpart expressed worry about a breakdown in the transportation system. His property has seen delays in deliveries, mainly because there's a trucking shortage. As a result, he had to pivot and compensate for extended lead times.
I continued to find others experiencing similar shortages and delays, so I reached out to one of the largest manufacturers of strapping in the country to find out what the issues were. They confirmed that at this point, the “new” lead time for strapping to their distributors was 12 to 14 weeks. A company representative said that they can't produce strapping quickly enough to keep up with demand, and orders keep building up in the pipeline. He cited shortages in the labor force. The company used to run 24/7. They are now down to five days a week, with shorter daily operating hours.
I spoke with a second vendor, a large paper supplier. This vendor didn’t have labor issues; their challenges were tied to unanticipated equipment failures and transportation disruption. They told me that there was one available truck driver for every three shipments of paper ready to ship to the United States from Canada.
According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), the shortage of truck drivers is at the highest point since it began monitoring it in 2005. Bob Costello, ATA’s chief economist, recently announced that the current shortage stands at 80,000 drivers, and the issue isn't going away any time soon. He stated, “Over the next decade, the shortage could hit 160,000 at current trends.”
We’ve all heard of the problems facing cargo ships in the port of Los Angeles. But, unfortunately, that was only one small part of the global supply chain failure. Trucking, rail shipping and air transport that for years has powered globalization and driven the economy wasn't prepared for the pandemic economy.
Still, many newspapers around the country are doing very well, installing new equipment and bringing in new business. It seems like, with every challenge thrown at us, we adjust to, learn from, and become better as a result. I don't see this being any different.
Here’s some practical advice: Take the supply-chain shortfalls seriously, and adjust your approach to consumables.
Closely monitor your stock, and discuss lead times with your vendors. The days of ordering today for “just in time delivery” are over. It's been a poor business practice to tie up money in material just sitting on the floor, but this is a time to beef up your stock.
With prices going up steadily increasing, purchase by volume when you can. Build up your stock when the consumables are available. For example, a vendor recently notified me of an upcoming price increase on ink, so I ordered additional totes at the lower price to beat the increase. Although I don’t necessarily condone a lot of excess inventory sitting on your floor, it’s a lot better than running out of critical supplies.
Plus, be flexible with paper stock. Paper deliveries have been one of the toughest challenges. Of course, we all work around it the best we can, but sometimes it calls for tough choices. Occasionally running old stock that might not be the exact web size required is one way to work around stock shortages. Most of the time, when push comes to shove, you can get away with a slight variance on a web width.
If you're stitching & trimming a product and need to go to a wider web, just do it. If you have more paper of one kind and are running low on a particular web size, go an inch or two larger on a TMC or “non-critical” job to preserve essential stock. It might cost you a tad more, but it makes a world of difference if you’re running low on a particular size.
Also, consider running different stock on special in-house sections. Mix things up a bit if it helps to preserve inventory. For example, running sections that “used to run” on hi-brite but don’t have the revenue advantages they used to should go on newsprint. Likewise, if you’re low on newsprint and have more hi-brite in stock, switch up to a premium stock and up-sell advertisers.
Now is the time to find new and innovative ways to operate our shops and successfully manage our way out of this crisis.
Jerry Simpkins has more than 30 years of experience in printing and operations in the newspaper industry. Contact him on LinkedIn or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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