Shifting to a digital network will be key to providing stronger data. However, Wuest warns that while digitization provides useful transparency into supply chain movement, it doesn’t ultimately improve the way companies source. Simply applying disruptive technologies to drive improvement, Wuest cautions, is an overly simplistic approach.

“If you use advanced technology in an old and not very aligned process, it’s a very high-tech bad process,” Wuest points out. “You need to revisit your processes and reimagine how they should look, and then technology will provide the means to do it.”

Wuest advises suppliers to reimagine processes by putting the customer at the center of the transaction and determining how to give that customer the best experience possible, á la Amazon. Digitized solutions, and the data transparency they afford, can then help create a better customer experience.

More digitized supply chain solutions will also support manufacturers in finding alternate materials to reduce bottlenecks – a potential win for smaller manufacturers. “I think performance-based characterization will help [manufacturers] look for alternative products where different composite make-ups could be useful,” Kopardekar says. “If you look at end-to-end advanced air mobility systems, composites could have a significant play at vertiports, aircraft, seats and many other areas. Composite manufacturers can focus on how they can offer substitute materials that will meet the performance in wider industries, targeting horizontal growth in adjacent industries.”

Expanding Your Supplier Pool

Vineeth agrees that manufacturers should think about alternate sources. “If possible, try to source locally available alternatives or modify the process to utilize an alternative grade of products,” he says. However, finding those alternates has traditionally been difficult in the composites industry. That too is changing.

In late 2019, the Utah Advanced Materials & Manufacturing Initiative formally launched the supply chain database tool it had been developing for years to connect the state’s small and rural manufacturers with business opportunities and bolster localized supply chains, which helps companies reduce the risk of waiting on overseas orders and become more nimble in responding to fluctuations in product demand. With support from the Utah Industrial Resource Alliance and other organizations, UAMMI launched CONNEX UTAH, an online supply chain tool to connect manufacturers with advanced material and manufacturing suppliers across the state and, through its integration into the National Association of Manufacturers’ Manufacturers Marketplace, the world. Suppliers can also connect on the CONNEX marketplace to find buyers seeking their services.

The initiative, which was born in part out of a Department of Defense grant focused on improving the supply chain for critical defense industry components, included approximately 150 composites and advanced materials manufacturers when it was launched. That has since swelled to more than 8,000 companies across all of Utah’s manufacturing industries. The system has become a template for several other state-based databases.

Among many other features, CONNEX hosts an exchange center where manufacturers list a need and member suppliers are notified of the opportunity. “For example, Northrop Grumman needed to find someone with a vertical turning lathe that could mill parts from 30 to 80 inches,” explains Alan Davis, creator of CONNEX UTAH. “The supplier had to have certain certifications and meet other criteria. The application notifies suppliers that this opportunity is out there.” The result, Davis adds, is a tool that provides visibility to suppliers and supports even small suppliers in building connections with large customers.

This visibility has been sorely lacking, says Davis. CONNEX’s first test case helped one of the state’s largest manufacturers source a specific composite component. The company was ready to award a $70 million contract outside of the state, having scoured Utah for suppliers that could meet its specific needs. After running a quick, filtered search through CONNEX, the company found its ideal supplier, carrying all required certifications, government clearances and fabrication capabilities. The supplier was located within two miles of the manufacturer’s facility.

“They had the excess capacity, they had everything they needed to deliver the contract, they just didn’t know the opportunity was there,” Davis says.

Access to data is a key way for suppliers to attract the attention of manufacturers that are pivoting to respond to supply chain disruptions. It also provides small manufacturers insight into their supply chain risks.

“There’s functionality in the CONNEX platform that allows users to visualize their supply chain, which has really been important, particularly to the smaller manufacturers that don’t typically have access to that kind of a tool,” Davis explains. “Within CONNEX, you can visualize your supply chain, and we’ll flag any issues.” This might include single supplier risks, a particularly useful feature as CONNEX can then identify alternate suppliers, as well as companies that might be on a government watch list. “This is an area of risk that’s particularly difficult for most organizations to see because a Tier 1 supplier doesn’t often have much visibility into Tier 2 and hardly any visibility into Tier 3,” Davis notes.

Looking to the Future

In rethinking processes, Wuest sees promise for an issue that’s long been discussed within the composites supply chain – recyclability. Factoring in the shortage of raw materials today and a strengthening commitment to climate change from manufacturers across all industries and nations, he sees particular promise for a project soon to launch within ACMA. Wuest is among the researchers examining reverse supply chains to see how products at the end of life can be remanufactured in a “more sustainable, more value-adding way, instead of a value-reducing way.”

The project is taking a two-pronged approach. “We are developing a new method to remanufacture composite parts, then we will deploy a decentralized supply chain to bring together sources and consumers of the remanufactured parts to replicate a cascade model,” Wuest explains. The cascade model refers to stages within a product lifecycle, specifically recovery, remanufacturing and end of life.

“Remanufactured products still provide value,” Wuest explains. “So they stay in the cycle longer and can reduce the impact on the environment.” More importantly, remanufactured products may someday provide a sourcing alternate for manufacturers that currently only have access to raw materials.

Fault lines have been growing in the composites supply chain. The global pandemic simply shone a light on existing problems – and solutions.

“We’ve all been scrambling during the pandemic to figure out what do about our supply chain,” says Davis. “In truth, the solution has been in the works for the last eight or nine years. We don’t have to start from scratch. We can start from where we are, which is a wonderful thing.”

This begins with a shift in mindset. Manufacturers can continue to operate the way they do today, passing cost increases to customers until they reach a breaking point. Or they can decide to invest in a change, touching base with key partners up and down the value chain to determine how they can add value.

“Supply is often seen as a cost factor and not necessarily as a value-added operation,” Wuest says. “I think that mindset is shifting now, and the pandemic is probably partly to blame – or praise – for that. It has brought supply chain issues to the forefront. People are now talking about it, understanding that maybe we need to think, as a nation, about what we want to have direct access to and control over.”

These conversations about risk and value should likewise be taking place among composites industry manufacturers and suppliers.