When it comes to the supply chain, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a major shift in how companies handle their operations. Entire industries are faced with new challenges, workers need to manage remotely, suppliers are looking for new ways to connect and logistics solutions are being put to the test. Some areas of business experienced one of the most profound supply and demand shocks ever. How many of us thought there was going to be a toilet paper outage? Even the most established consumer product companies couldn’t keep up with the demand. Given the mission critical nature of labeling, companies cannot afford downtime or anything that impacts production.

Right now, during this crisis, it’s more important than ever to manage risk and ensure the world’s people and global community have access to safe food, medical supplies and other consumer goods. In order to do that, the supply chain must be conducted flawlessly from the handling and distribution of goods and materials, to providing finished products, medicines, and medical equipment to consumer patients.

But how do we best manage potential supply chain risk and maintain business continuity? Companies often think about manufacturing and shipping but frequently overlook an essential element to supply chain agility – labeling. We must ensure a consistent flow of goods from manufacturers to consumers. But to do that, companies need to ensure that their labeling can meet today’s unique demands. Even when production and distribution are addressed, if labeling goes down during a crisis, continuity is still broken. Because, if you can’t label products and shipments both up and downstream, then you can’t maintain your business, you can’t get finished goods into people’s hands and you can’t achieve revenue goals.

What Happens When Facilities Close Down?

During the early stages of the pandemic, many companies were caught off guard. Some had been forced to shut down facilities while others experienced bottlenecks due to disruption in warehousing or distribution. There were many things going wrong and countless companies found themselves in a situation where they needed to shift production from one location to another. This shift in production also meant that companies needed to shift labeling. Maybe there was a need to support a quick transition in labeling from the downed site and the newly enabled site needs to produce labels which support:

New languages

Additional regions

Alternate customer requirements

Different label formats

Altered shipping routes

Varied infrastructures with different printers

Clearly, organizations may struggle when it comes to shifting labeling and managing label printing operations across their enterprise - in different physical locations and in multiple regions. Part of the challenge in managing this shift is to understand the unique requirements in each region. For instance, those employees or resources that are most familiar with the labeling requirements for a specific impacted geography may now work from home or be otherwise displaced. This of course means there could be limited access to the knowledge needed to manage the labeling function, which could result in further delays or potentially labeling errors.

Additionally, many companies look to ensure supply chain agility by working with multiple suppliers, so that they can rapidly switch between those suppliers to ensure continuous flow of goods in case of a disruption to their supply network. For example, one could imagine a company switching from a supplier in China to a supplier in India– and then shifting back to China as the pandemic spreads in India and the lockdown eases in China. However, if those suppliers are unable to produce the correct label on the products and parts they produce then the goal of supply chain continuity has not been achieved.

Accommodating Shifts in Production

While there are many elements to preparing and planning for supply continuity in the face of a major interruption - whether it’s a health crisis, natural disaster, power failure or any other potential supply chain disruption – labeling remains a critical area that must be addressed. So, the question remains - How in the face of disaster can a company ensure that labeling, and the corresponding supply chain, continues? One way is to shift labeling from one site to another to accommodate the shift in production.

Since a disruption in labeling can present a critical bottleneck, companies must be agile enough to shift their labeling efforts between facilities quickly and in a compliant and consistent manner. Without an Enterprise Labeling solution in place, companies may be forced to spend weeks getting their labeling efforts set up in a new facility only to be forced to move again shortly afterwards. However, when companies enlist multi-site capabilities they are able to easily shift labeling from one site to the next.

Multi-site capabilities allow companies to realize the benefits of both centralized and decentralized deployments at the same time. Most importantly they can rapidly extend labeling anywhere. It offers the power to deploy to any and all locations across a company’s enterprise, with each location designed to run independently - with the ability to synch up to corporate when required to access standard and approved label content and templates from the central location. It also allows companies to drive labeling centrally and immediately fail over to any local instance if there is break in continuity to headquarters. This is critical in maintaining business continuity in the case of any outages, shutdowns or supply chain disruption.

Enabling Suppliers with Browser-based Access

Companies should standardize and centralize their labeling to provide immediate access to users and locations regardless of geography. Allowing multiple locations and/or suppliers flexible access to centralized labeling and label content to seamlessly produce labels remotely is crucial to business continuity. Teams won’t be faced with designing new templates or copying existing ones. Instead, accurate and compliant label templates can be accessed centrally from any location, avoiding the time needed to design new templates or copy existing ones. Ultimately, to enable enterprises to create, manage and print labels, organizations need a browser-based interface that allows them to seamlessly implement, deploy, maintain, scale and shift their labeling operations when necessary across their global network.

Additionally, implementing a cloud-based platform with universal label templates enables suppliers, 3PLs and other locations to easily print labels remotely, which is critical during times of potential disruption. This allows any additional users to maintain the same level of printing quality and performance as experienced in the networked locations. Also, the data and content they need is still available at their location for printing. And, remote users can check accuracy by previewing labels and comparing label output from new locations to labels printed at the previous location(s).

Most importantly, when shifting labeling to new or different locations, it’s important to maximum control with role-based security that allows administrators to select who gets access to labels, content, and printing devices. Administrators should have visibility to easily understand which printers are in use, which users are accessing them, and which labels are being printed in specific circumstances. This enables companies to easily adopt new suppliers in a time when existing suppliers can’t meet evolving demands.

Enabling a Remote Workforce with the Cloud

It’s more than likely that you had to start working remotely at some point during this past year. And, many companies’ workforce is still remote. This is why it’s critical to offer immediate access to users, anywhere and at any time. This represents a huge challenge for scarce IT resources. But it doesn’t stop there. To maintain supply chain agility, companies must also be able to swiftly shift both facilities and resources between different locations. To manage this, it’s important to have the flexibility that cloud and browser-based deployments offer.

Unfortunately, without a browser-based solution it’s nearly impossible to quickly shift production from one facility to another, especially if the new facility has different technologies and printer hardware. The same is true for label templates, configurations, and data services that are aren’t typically accessible to other locations. When these aren’t available by default, and in cases where a new facility has a different infrastructure, labeling processes may need to be recreated in order to ensure that the enterprise is compliant and consistent. Companies need to maintain their standards and labeling consistency even when they’re faced with moving all or part of their operations.

Moving to a new on-premise infrastructure while maintaining the same levels of service may entail finding the same software, the same software versions, and the same configurations. This is a lot of work, and it might not be possible to get it right in the short time frame required. In the worst-case scenario, a hurried effort to move labeling to a different location – without the cloud – results in labels that can’t be used, products that can’t be shipped, or fines related to mislabeled products. Other bad outcomes may include replication of efforts, production bottlenecks, or unauthorized personnel being given access to label data. Of course, time is of the essence and avoiding this outcome in a timely fashion means that the IT department needs to work overtime as they install, upgrade, configure, and maintain software at the new premises. Unfortunately, during a global crisis and potential supply chain disruption, the IT resources will be scarce and already overburdened as they deal with countless challenges.

However, by provisioning an infrastructure through the cloud, companies can quickly add computing resources on an as-needed basis, preventing slowdowns and bottlenecks. Traditionally, it would take time to provide access to label templates and data sources for users at a new location – time that companies can no longer afford to waste. Using the cloud affords the opportunity to provide role-based access control and by simply defining a role at a new facility and adding label template permissions to that role, your new users will be able to access all that they need. Additionally, your remote users will be able to use a definitive library of approved label templates without recreating their own local versions and introducing the possibility of labeling errors.

Extending Beyond the COVID-19 Crisis

As previously mentioned, business requires innovation and forward thinking. Perhaps your company has managed to get by during this pandemic. Maybe the virus didn’t have as big of an impact on your supply chain as emphasized. But what about next time? Shifting production and managing suppliers can have a drastic impact on your supply chain and business operations, but without the flexibility that Enterprise Labeling offers you’ll lose precious time and risk accuracy and consistency.

With an Enterprise Labeling Solution, everything relating to labeling deployment can be carried out remotely. Regardless of challenges such as communication lapses, production hiccups, or warehouse failures, labeling can go on. By standardizing across your enterprise with a comprehensive Enterprise Labeling Solution, you can ensure all your label requirements are fulfilled and labeling uptime can be guaranteed. It allows for full automation of labeling and supports complex scenarios by providing the right label, in the right place, at the right time.

Additionally, the right services and consulting is critical in helping companies manage new deployments, assist with training any new parties that need to get up to speed on labeling and for offering best practices. This is especially true in today’s situation where companies are suddenly finding themselves with new requirements to produce a product that they’ve never created before. For instance, manufactures that generally produce a range of consumer products goods, automotive or electronics may find themselves producing ventilators or masks to deal with today’s crisis.

It’s safe to say that the virus has changed the way businesses operate, and one priority is maintaining uptime. As no one could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, no one can predict the next major supply chain disruptor. The only thing you can do is prepare for impact so you can meet new demands – whether entering new markets, addressing evolving customer and regulatory requirements, or dealing with unforeseen global changes.

Josh Roffman is VP Product Management, Loftware.