How West Michigan's innovative manufacturers are reinventing supply chains

Manufacturing in West Michigan is undergoing a profound transformation. A region once known for its prowess in industries such as plastics, biopharmaceuticals and office furniture, is now moving into a new era with an eye for resilience and sustainability.

Manufacturing makes up 19% of the region's jobs, according to business development nonprofit The Right Place. In a 2020 study ranking "cities with the most manufacturing jobs," the Grand Rapids-Kentwood area emerged as the leader, boasting the highest per capita manufacturing employment of any major metropolitan area in the United States. Grand Rapids' manufacturing density eclipses the national average by a remarkable two-fold margin.

Navigating supply chain challenges in Michigan

Michigan is a unique player among states, with a robust infrastructure dedicated to economic development. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) takes proactive steps to address critical infrastructure issues and is working closely with organizations such as the Pure Michigan Business Connect team, which coordinates regional supplier matches and events, aiding procurement and identifying manufacturers with specific capabilities. 
Rebekah McCarter, lead supplier scout for the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center, says there was a big push for nationwide supply chain innovation when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. That need hasn’t changed since.

“That's the backdrop to all of these conversations people are having around supply chain — geopolitical things, material shortages, all the other challenges. Those things are not going away,” she says. “They're happening more frequently, which is inflating logistics cost and creating time delays."

With these globally impactful disruptions on the rise, many are realizing that returning to the "normal" of the past is no longer feasible.

"A number of companies have contacted us directly, because they are actively looking to get out of China for a lot of reasons, not just political," McCarter says. "Some of what we are offering as a state is supplier scouting and support for manufacturers to help them identify who are the local, pre-qualified, pre-vetted suppliers. This personal connection helps determine if they are a good fit for business."

In Michigan, efforts are made to connect businesses locally and nationally through platforms like Connex Michigan. This platform allows Michigan businesses to find and solicit bids from other local companies and provides a connection to the national marketplace. The emphasis is on helping companies identify reliable, local suppliers to complete their supply chains.

The state’s comprehensive approach to supply chain management includes addressing not just material and cash flow but also data flow and information security. Ensuring data flows securely, sharing insights about risk mitigation, and employing advanced technologies are seen as critical solutions to address supply chain challenges.

"We have industry 4.0 technologies, including big data, analytics, AI and sensors that help machines communicate with each other and monitor performance," McCarter says. These technologies not only enhance operational efficiency but also play a vital role in risk mitigation.

A pioneer in adaptive supply chain management

Since COVID and other global disruptions, traditional approaches to managing supply chains have become obsolete. Innovative companies are now devising novel strategies to navigate these choppy waters.

One of the key players in this transformation is Gentex, a prominent manufacturing company headquartered in West Michigan.
Randall Pappal, the vice president of purchasing and supply chain at Gentex, shared his insight into how the company is tackling the dynamic supply chain requirements.

"The last couple of years in the supply chain have been quite volatile," says Pappal, who has spent nearly his entire career in the automotive industry.

The COVID-19 crisis elevated the significance of supply chain departments in shaping a company's strategy, and this holds true for Gentex. One of the fundamental shifts in the company's approach was combining the purchasing and supply chain departments into a unified force. 

This has resulted in a closer collaboration between these units and the plant operations group, fostering a more cohesive approach to supply chain management. The company is also working with its supply base to be more transparent on challenges coming down the pipeline.

"Supply chain departments, in general, are being more instrumental in their company strategy," Pappal says.

However, it's not just about data and logistics; Pappal says there is great value in building relationships with key suppliers.

"We're spending time developing deeper relationships with our key suppliers, so that we can understand problems before they happen," Pappal says. "And we're listening to our customers and our suppliers and trying to react to that volatility that still exists in the supply chain."

Challenges have abounded over the past few years, and Gentex, like many other manufacturers, had to adapt swiftly to unforeseen obstacles. Issues such as commodity shortages, logistical hurdles at global ports and geopolitical tensions from war overseas have presented considerable supply chain challenges.

"The ability for supply chains to sense and respond and be able to get the necessary parts and components into our manufacturing operations has been critical for Gentex as well as for every other company,” Pappal says. “It just seems like over the past number of years, we've had so many different challenges to the supply base that we've just had to find ways to continue to be adaptive."

Resiliency is critical in today's supply chain landscape. Building a resilient supply base, in Pappal's view, hinges on forging deep and transparent relationships with key suppliers.

"In the end, positive relationships with key suppliers can be a game-changer during challenging times," he says. “When you have these positive relationships, you can find solutions to problems much more effectively."

Shaping future supply chain leaders

Davenport University is preparing the next generation of manufacturing students to tackle dynamic supply chain requirements. The school has revamped its operations and supply chain management program to focus on the broader scope of supply chain challenges, both external and internal. A leading voice in that revamp has been Thomas Stambaugh, who teaches faculty, operations and supply chain management at Davenport’s Donald W. Maine College of Business.

"We're now focusing on the overall supply chain and ensuring that students gain hands-on experience with cutting-edge technology," Stambaugh says.

The program at Davenport University places a significant emphasis on technology, ensuring that students not only understand the theoretical aspects of supply chain management but also gain practical experience with industry-specific software and tools.

"The one thing I like about our program at Davenport is the fact that we have industry focus instilled in the workforce," Stambaugh says. "The adjunct faculty that teach in my program, their full time job is fighting in the trenches, so to speak. With what we're experiencing in the supply chain system, with all the unknowns. It's a very interesting time right now for them, not only recovering from the COVID ups and downs but also from the UAW (United Auto Workers) situation."

The university brings in industry partners to provide students with this experience. An advisory committee with professionals from various sectors, including automotive (ADAC Automotive), aerospace (GE Aerospace), and food services (Gordon Food Service), helps steer the program's direction. This collaboration ensures that students are exposed to the latest industry trends and insights.

Vision, adaptability and innovation

Stambaugh says this generation of students will need to envision the future of supply chain systems, adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and embrace innovative solutions powered by emerging technologies. To that end, there are three crucial traits the next generation of supply chain professionals should foster.

"The first one is the vision," he says. "The vision of being able to understand the supply chain at their organization, understand where they are and where they need to go in the future."

The second trait is adaptability.

"A lot of times, and especially in the old days, supply chain students would learn how to manage procurement or handle warehousing — it was almost cookie cutter to the point where once a system was set up, it was good enough," Stambaugh says. "Nowadays we know that's not true."

The third important trait is a spirit of innovation.

"More and more, technology is driving where we're headed in the supply chain," Stambaugh says, "One of the reasons I brought in that hands-on experience to Davenport was so that we could talk about things like AI and blockchain, ERP systems and how they benefit companies."

The Manufacturing Leadership Summit

Another driving force for manufacturing in West Michigan is The Right Place, which is hosting the Manufacturing Leadership Summit on Nov. 8. This event will bring together the region's manufacturing community to explore the latest advancements and trends in the industry.

Topics of discussion at the summit include cybersecurity, business ethics, change management, and digital transformation. The summit highlights the critical role of technology and innovation in shaping the future of manufacturing, emphasizing the need for companies to adapt to “industry 4.0.”

As industry 4.0 takes hold, the fusion of visionary leadership, adaptability, and innovation will be the key to navigating these tumultuous waters and emerging stronger than ever.

Matthew Russell is a writer and maker living in West Michigan. Matthew has over 25 years of experience as a journalist for newspapers and magazines in the Midwest, has been published in two books about Grand Rapids history, and is currently improving his skills as an amateur apiarist while building a sustainable microfarm in West Michigan.

This series seeks to highlight tech organizations and employers throughout Greater Grand Rapids that are delivering innovative programs and addressing talent pipeline challenges and seeking to develop, attract and retain quality talent in West Michigan. This series is underwritten by The Right Place.
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