Supply chain issues continue to challenge US manufacturers

At the peak of the crisis a year ago, industrialists faced shortages of everything from steel and aluminium to computer chips and plastic resins

The Port of Oakland in Oakland, California. A supply chain crunch stretches from overseas manufacturers to US ports and retail stores. Bloomberg
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Glen Calder expected a shipment of gearbox reducers that were needed to build a particular model of his company's paving machines last week.

But when he called on Thursday to check the status of the order, he learnt that the shipment — coming from Italy — is now delayed three months.

“No explanation, no excuse, no nothing,” said Mr Calder, vice president of operations for Calder Brothers, an 80-employee manufacturer in Taylors, South Carolina.

Mr Calder said his factory was already cutting steel for the machines that require the Italian parts and would now have to scramble to produce something else. Orders for those machines, already delayed, will go unfilled for now.

Supply chain problems dogged producers like Mr Calder through the Covid-19 pandemic. At the peak of the crisis a year ago, manufacturers faced shortages of everything from steel and aluminium to computer chips and plastic resins.

Conditions have improved in recent months. The backup of ships waiting to unload at US ports, for instance, has dwindled. The latest monthly survey by the Institute for Supply Management showed the percentage of respondents saying supplier delivery times were faster than the month before was the highest since 2009, and those saying they were slower had fallen back below historic trend levels from last year's record highs. And many commodities have become more readily available.

But supply chains remain far from normal.

“To put it affectionately, I’m playing whack-a-mole every week with suppliers that aren’t delivering,” said Mr Calder.

He is not alone in this new game. A recent survey of 179 companies by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers found 98 per cent said they faced continued supply chain problems. More ominously — and surprising, given recent reports like the ISM data about supplies flowing more freely — nearly 60 per cent said they saw problems continuing to worsen.

Another gauge, the New York Fed’s Global Supply Chain Pressure Index, edged higher in October and November — reversing some of the loosening of global supply bottlenecks seen through most of the past year.

And now there is renewed concern about China. Through much of the pandemic, China’s factories struggled to keep up with the unexpected surge in global demand for manufactured goods. That country’s sudden lifting of pandemic restrictions has now sparked a wave of infections that could once again hamper factories.

Some manufacturers, however, are confident the worst is over.

Keith Johnson, president of Kondex Corp, which makes metal parts for agricultural equipment makers like Deere & Co and AGCO Corp, said “there’s a sense that everybody is finally digging out” from the shortages of the past two years.

That includes finally adding the workers needed to hit production targets at the Lomira, Wisconsin factory. Kondex has pushed its workforce up to 280 people, more than the company employed before the pandemic. But it was not easy to fill these jobs.

Mr Johnson’s new workers include 18 hired from out-of-state through a labour-sourcing company. They live in local motels and cost Kondex about three times more than their comparable locally-hired counterparts. The company is investing in automation and other equipment that should help with the labour crunch.

“But a lot of that has been delayed,” he said, by supply chain delays.

Updated: December 23, 2022, 5:00 AM