November/December 2021 President’s Message: Supply-Chain Blues

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November 1, 2021

I am writing this President’s Message on the day of my 26th wedding anniversary, quite unbeknownst to my wife, Karen. Like many of my domestic duties, I’m also late with the IIBEC deliverables this month, and have probably failed my chance to make a good first impression on Christian Hamaker, IIBEC’s new Director of Publications and Communications. You could say the President’s Message supply chain has been disrupted.

Nonetheless, I am beating the bushes for words to string together to fulfill Christian’s order—just as many manufacturers and distributors are making calls and deals to assemble orders and try to keep their customers happy, or at least solvent. In the construction industry, we’re actually all part of an incredibly complex supply chain. Like other industries, construction supply and demand has always been characterized as self-balancing, but demand has mostly been king, whether it be high through boom times or low during economic downturns or natural disasters. We know that if we just wait patiently, we can expect supply to catch up. However, we have never had to wait for so long; the prospect of waiting six months to a year for construction materials once seemed preposterous. But now that we’ve experienced a continuation and even lengthening of these supply disruptions, we are realizing that the issue is real and far-reaching, and we are struggling to understand and deal with it as we try to move forward.

Supply chains are often thought of as simple, linear, and demand-driven. The word “chain” exudes a predictable and linear kind of connection. However, our recent experiences with supply-chain issues are screaming at us that this is a bad model. There are many complexities in the systems of construction suppliers of which we have no understanding, and therefore we can’t accurately estimate or plan. We’ve rarely ever had to deal with a pervasive lack of supply of products. Now empty auto dealer lots are caused by semiconductor shortages. Factories brimming with warehouses of widgets cannot ship their goods due to a lack of cardboard boxes. Roofs can’t be installed because the base chemicals to make roofing adhesives are in short supply. Even though we are moving away in time from the first root causes of the supply problems, their effects continue to haunt us, and there is no end in sight.

This reminds me a bit of the saga of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. A few months after its opening in 1940, in a self-disintegrating performance that only YouTube can do justice to, the bridge was laid to waste by relatively minor wind forces, whose presence was anticipated but whose effects were not fully appreciated. The seemingly secondary, but complex, issue of harmonic resonance was not considered in the design, and it created a dynamic instability that tore the bridge apart, fortunately without the loss of life.

The engineering world had to step back and learn the complexities of harmonic oscillation, then find methods of design to prevent recurrence of this issue. Similarly, we in the construction industry need to recognize the enormous complexity of the supply chain we are part of, and dig deeper to develop a better understanding of what makes our suppliers and customers tick, so we can collectively work to dampen and minimize future supply setbacks. One scholar has even suggested we should change “supply chain” to “supply ecology,” to paint a more accurate picture of the complexity and interconnected relationships in the construction world.

I’m not going to immediately tell a fastener supplier that they are part of my supply ecology. They may get the mistaken impression that I only specify green roofs. But I am going to pick their brain about which of their products are more readily available, find out who their competitors are, and educate myself better on adhesive systems, maybe even dust off my old specs for a loose-laid, ballasted assembly. Surely gravel ballast is still available!

Thanks for reading along and helping me solve my most pressing supply chain issue.