End-to-End Visibility is the Weak Link in Supply Chains

U.S. high-tech manufacturers are cautiously optimistic as they emerge from the recession, but say they’re trying to find new ways to serve an unpredictable global customer base while simultaneously driving down costs, a new survey shows.

High-tech companies are placing a greater emphasis on areas that proved to be weaknesses during the recession—responsiveness, resiliency and cost containment—as they face the future with some optimism. Looking ahead, these companies are keeping their eyes on the bottom line, naming their top business priorities over the next 18 months as operating more efficiently (66%) and improving margins (60%).

The “Change in the (Supply) Chain” survey, conducted by IDC Manufacturing Insights, targeted decision makers in the areas of operations, supply chain and logistics and distribution at high-tech companies across the country. The survey was designed to uncover the biggest business and supply chain issues for high-tech companies during the recession and reveal how their supply chains changed as a result. The survey also identifies how future plans are likely to change supply chains in the high-tech industry going forward.

In an industry dependent on globalization, high-tech companies expect demand for their products over the next three-to-five years to be driven primarily by customers in North America (86%) and Asia Pacific (71%), with Europe coming in third (61%), similar to today’s demand patterns.

When the topic turns to modifying supply chains to satisfy demand, the survey found the executives predicting the three biggest things that would drive them to make changes would be cost (68%), responsiveness (40%) and matching rapid changes in customer demand (34%).

High-tech companies recognize the need for change in their supply chains, yet several barriers exist. Companies say the weakest links in their supply chains today are a lack of end-to-end visibility (48%), unstable suppliers (44%) and challenges with demand planning (44%).

Another challenge for high-tech companies has historically been the reverse logistics process of handling product returns and repairs. Survey respondents report that meeting customer expectations was their greatest business concern when it came to reverse logistics, cited by 46% of companies. The greatest supply chain challenge is getting customers to comply with returns processes (22%).

Despite cost concerns, 46% of companies are preparing to invest in new product development to keep up with customer demand over the next 18 months. When asked their “secret weapon” for future supply chain success, companies cited supply chain flexibility through a variable cost structure.

The report was sponsored by UPS. The survey targeted senior-level decision makers in the areas of operations, supply chain and logistics and distribution at 125 high-tech companies across the U.S. Surveys were conducted in August and September of 2010.

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