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Watch: Supply Chains 2022: Problems and Solutions

Tom Coughlin, a fellow with IEEE, offers a glimpse into the new year and how global supply chains will fare in the coming months.

The big question for 2022 is how COVID-19 is going to continue to affect supply chains, Coughlin says. Factory shutdowns and worker shortages have already had a severe impact on the ability of manufacturers, distributors and retailers to get product to market on a timely basis, and relief looks unlikely through the first quarter of the new year.

The pandemic has made companies acutely aware of the interdependence of supply chains, with reliance on multiple suppliers to produce crucial components of finished products. Coughlin predicts a move toward at least partial reshoring of manufacturing capability, with practical and political considerations driving some production back to the U.S. “We’re still going to have global supply chains,” he says, “but there’s going to be pressure for a lot more local content in products.”

For that to happen, however, manufacturers and distributors will need to rely more heavily on automation. Coughlin says technology generally will play an important role in the makeup and operation of supply chains in the coming years, with innovations such as blockchain and artificial intelligence bringing a new level of visibility and insight into global processes.

Automation is no instant solution, however. It will take years for supply chains to realize the full benefit of new technologies, which are constantly improving in their ability to manage complex factories and distribution centers. At the same time, Coughlin says, people will continue to play an essential role in supply chain design and operation. “New computing technologies are good for certain things, but not everything,” he says. “Working together with humans, we can transform way we do things in the future.”

Watch: Supply Chains 2022: Problems and Solutions