Calling Time on Just in Time: New Answers to Efficiency and Resilience in Life Sciences Manufacturing

Like many disasters, just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing started as a good idea. Pioneered by the car manufacturers, notably Japan’s Toyota, in the 1950s and 1960s, aligning production directly with demand in terms of orders and supplies with the consequent production schedules. As Toyota’s handbook explained: “Making only what is needed, only when it is needed, and only in the amount that is needed.”

It brought significant efficiencies to the industry, eliminating waste from overproduction, transport and excess inventory, among other areas. Little wonder, then, that it has been widely adopted across other industries, from retail to technology. Apple’s Tim Cook has been among its most evangelical supporters, describing inventory as “fundamentally evil”. Inevitably, it was also widely adopted in pharmaceuticals.

But while accountants seized on the JIT concept because it meant less working capital on the books (they love stock reduction), something got lost in translation. Two things specifically.

First, JIT worked for the auto industry because suppliers to the continuous production lines were close to the main assembly plants. There was usually not much that could go wrong between supplier and manufacturer. Second, JIT works better for industries where, if problems do arise, it’s easy to switch to alternative (also probably local) suppliers if one does not deliver.

Neither was necessarily true for many businesses and industries that eagerly took it up. JIT came to be applied regardless of the geographic relationship between site and supplier; production and inventory management was applied to supply chains that were not just national but international. Moreover, it was applied in industries like pharma, where manufacturers couldn’t simply switch to another supplier in case of a delivery failure;  suppliers of quality critical components need to undergo lengthy qualification or process revalidations, making swapping suppliers much harder.

Both factors make it much harder to meet customer demand without significant stock inventories to cover delays in sourcing and securing a new supply.

Time’s Up for Pharma JIT

That was graphically illustrated during the Covid crisis.

The crisis facing pharma supply chains was, in fact, two-fold: Massive disruptions to logistics, and especially cross-border supplies, due to restrictions and worker shortages, which were common to all industries; and, more pertinently for pharma specifically, a massive surge in demand – particularly for certain drugs and components and materials needed by vaccine manufacturers, such as syringes, stoppers, vials, hygienic filters and processing equipment, with a knock-on effect for the wider pharma industry.

It was the perfect storm, and while JIT cannot be solely blamed for the shortages seen, given the scale of the crisis, it undoubtedly made it worse in many cases.

Moreover, it’s not a crisis we can confidently predict will not happen again. For a start, supply chain disruptions persisted long after the worst of the pandemic had passed. The war in Ukraine should tell us that it’s never possible to be sure that international supply chains won’t face sudden and significant derailment. And demand can quickly again become volatile: If not a pandemic, then perhaps just a very bad flu season. After all, supply chain problems did not start with the pandemic.

It's not surprising then that even relatively early in the pandemic, some were asking whether JIT was finished. Moreover, at that point, it was assumed it would simply be for industry to decide; that’s unlikely to be entirely true for pharma, where it’s increasingly clear governments intend to have a say in ensuring the supply of critical drugs.

Even without regulatory pressure outside pharma, many businesses are voting with their feet. As the FT has put it, companies are shifting from just-in-time to “just in case” when it comes to managing stock.

Long Live Low Inventories

In manufacturing more broadly, it’s unlikely that JIT has had its day. Instead, for many, it might go back to first principles. A significant consequence of the disruption seen across industries is an increase in onshoring. A recent survey of British manufacturers by industry body Make UK, meanwhile, shows more than a third (35%) planning to switch to home-based rather than international suppliers.

In bringing suppliers in closer proximity to manufacturing sites, some manufacturers will be able to save JIT, which was always a legitimate efficiency drive in the right circumstances.

For many pharma manufacturers, this is unlikely to be a solution, however. For onshoring to really work and maintain supply chain efficiencies, the supply base would need to relocate, along with the main manufacturing. As we’ve discussed before, that may be possible for new in-patent products and high-value materials and components. They already have the margins to support investment in stock, secondary suppliers and other mitigations that ensure high-quality, resilient supply chains. That could likewise support investments to bring supplies and manufacturing together.

The dependence on offshore locations for cheaper components and active pharmaceutical ingredients for generics did not happen by accident, however. The cost-benefit analysis for tight-margin products in most cases still argues for offshoring. While there have been exceptions, a wholesale move to onshore APIs dominated by China and India looks unlikely. Of course, government intervention, through regulation or subsidy, could change that, but we’ve yet to see it.

But if JIT as a production process might have been fatally undermined by the last couple of years, its drivers in terms of cutting costs remain as critical as ever – and particularly for low-margin products. The need for resilience doesn’t displace the need for efficiency. For a sustainable future, pharma manufacturers need both.

The Best of Both Worlds? Supply Chain Resilience and Efficiency

The key will be to improve supply chains’ visibility and manage them with more granularity. It’s notable that the recent US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) report on building supply chain resiliency for essential medicines talks of onshoring but also emphasises supply chain transparency.

That’s far from being achieved in many supply chains, given their complexity. A McKinsey survey of pharma businesses and other selected industries in 2020 showed nearly half of respondents citing sole sourcing of inputs as a critical vulnerability, while a quarter pointed to a lack of visibility into supplier risks.

Solutions like SCAIR® are critical to overcoming these obstacles and enabling pharma businesses to ensure that they’re holding stock but doing so efficiently – in the right place in the supply chain to most effectively mitigate potential shocks, rather than across the board. It enables manufacturers to identify their critical, single source, long lead time suppliers effectively. They can then hold the appropriate stock to protect them while taking a leaner approach for easily substituted supplies.

This hybrid approach combines just in time and just in case inventory levels at different points in the supply chain. It provides the resilience businesses need to stand up to sudden demand surges or supply chain shocks, when they inevitably arise; and the efficiency to ensure that the business is still around to see them.

Good Business Insurance Exposure Management Means Quantifying Profit at Risk

The pandemic has brought business interruption (BI) risk into sharp focus for companies with complex supply chains as well as their insurers. However, many firms still struggle to accurately quantify which supply points and exposures pose the biggest threats to their profits.

The wave of insolvencies and production shutdowns caused by recent global supply chain disruption has highlighted the importance of knowing where your exposures lie and having agile business continuity plans in place – particularly in complex manufacturing segments whose supply chains contain multiple suppliers and interdependencies. Unfortunately, these plans are often misguided as they are based on the wrong type of information.

Focus on Profit at Risk, Not Gross Spend

When prioritising where to focus risk management efforts within their supply chains, companies often look first at the gross sum they spend with each supplier. However, this ‘risk by spend’ approach paints a distorted picture of the company’s risk profile as the gross cost of a component tells you little about its impact on business continuity.

The figures that really matter are the revenue or gross profit at risk if any given supply point fails. These are the numbers that tell how much money your company stands to lose every day, week or month you are unable to supply your customers  because of being without any given component.

These are the numbers that define success and failure as a business – and guide you on where most investment should be spent mitigating risk and putting business continuity plans in place.

At present, SCAIR is the only Enterprise Grade supply chain risk assessment tool that calculates value at risk.

Holistic Risk Assessment

To accurately quantify supply chain exposure, several other factors must also be taken into consideration, such as the risk mitigation actions the company has in place. If a contract is already in place with an alternative supplier, for example, this will have a material impact on mitigating the real-world profit exposure and should be factored into calculations.

So should the projected recovery time of specific facility types, the cost and time of onboarding alternative suppliers or building new facilities if supply points fail. It is vital to extend the assessment to tier two suppliers or beyond to root out interdependencies lurking further up the supply chain.

Testing exposures against multiple scenarios is also key. How would an earthquake in Japan affect production? Are there multiple suppliers located in the same Florida floodplain or Californian wildfire zone? How would a regulatory shutdown, cyber-attack or insolvency of one or more suppliers disrupt your organisation – and at what cost?

Failing to assess risk in this level of detail makes it impossible to accurately quantify business interruption exposures across a highly complex supply chain. As well as exposing companies to potentially devastating – and unexpected – financial shocks, this can also result in misplaced allocation of effort and resources, as well as over- or underinsurance.

For insurers, many of whom have been hit with heavy BI losses from the pandemic, it is prudent to ensure clients accurately quantify their BI exposures from both an underwriting and loss mitigation perspective. Scenario testing across portfolios of insured risks can also play a key role in helping insurers manage their own underwriting exposures, rooting out hidden interdependencies and unwanted risk accumulation within their portfolios.

Armed with this information, insurers can more accurately price risk, meaning clients are charged premiums that fairly represent their risk. Overlaying company non-compliance data across the portfolio can also help insurers in the client due diligence process.

Say Goodbye to Spreadsheets

As well as getting the methodology right, companies also need to be using the right infrastructure for their risk assessments. Most firms – including even large brokers with market-leading business interruption assessment capabilities – still quantify their exposures on spreadsheets. This comes with a variety of risks and limitations. While spreadsheets can be easily adapted to suit the characteristics of any given company or supply chain, they become increasingly unfit for purpose as organisational and supply chain complexity increases.

Spreadsheets are easily broken, vulnerable to human error and lack transparency and flexibility. One of the biggest risks is that risk accumulations can go unnoticed. For example, a supplier may have acquired another and although they may operate under two names, they are in fact the same organisation, with many shared risks. If address and supplier name identification is not automated and verified this is easy to miss.  

Spreadsheets also do not integrate easily with third-party datasets, models and overlays and require manual management, making it difficult for the company to view their exposures in real-time or slice and dice data for analysis or visualisation purpose, limiting its agility.

Leading organisations are moving away from spreadsheets for these reasons in favour of tools that enable them to centrally manage, analyse and visualise their evolving supply chains while, crucially, more accurately calculating their exposures.

With supply chains under exceptional pressure, these firms are at a distinct competitive advantage and while the threat to those left behind continues to grow. 

SCAIR's supply chain risk assessment and management tools can help organisations identify, track and manage supply chain exposures.