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Webinar: Your Lab's Role in Supply Chain Management

Writing in the online edition of the Wall Street Journal ("), veteran business journalist Russ Banham notes, "In this era of globalization, few strategic initiatives are more global than a company

Writing in the online edition of the Wall Street Journal ("), veteran business journalist Russ Banham notes, "In this era of globalization, few strategic initiatives are more global than a company's supply chain."

The "lean manufacturing" concept pioneered by Toyota and others emphasizes just-in-time delivery of raw materials and mechanical parts with minimal amounts kept in inventory. I recall reading that a one-day delay in delivery of Toyota parts from Japan can force shutting down the firm's Tennessee auto plant. However, the recession has forced many firms to reduce their internal costs. One way to do so is to minimize inventories of raw materials and parts and instead rely on suppliers to deliver them just-in-time.

There are other factors to worry about other than delays in delivery. What if the delivered parts or materials do not meet your firm's quality specifications? This is where the laboratory can play a major role in assuring on-time delivery of on-specification raw materials and parts.

The Production Plant Laboratory

The plant laboratory has long been the site where raw materials and parts were tested to assure they met specifications. However, this testing often took place after the materials in question arrived at the plant. Today it is more efficient to require that a representative sample be sent by overnight delivery for lab test testing. This testing must be carried out in a very expeditious way so that shipment can occur quickly enough to assure on-time delivery with no interruption or delay to the production schedule.

This requires that the plant laboratory have sufficient staff and the testing equipment needed for rapid and efficient testing. It also means that lab personnel have an efficient sample submission and tracking system that assures that samples are logged in as soon as possible after arrival and sent to the proper analyst or analysts for testing. In some cases, rather than wait for one analyst to perform a test and then pass the sample onto another analyst for a different test, these tests should be performed in parallel so the entire test series is completed more quickly.

Once testing is complete, either the analyst or a supervisor must approve the sample for shipment and so inform the supplier. This should be part of the sample shipment and tracking system.

It may be advisable to make the sample submission and tracking system accessible to the supplier. This enables anxious suppliers to track the progress of their sample towards approval.

The Central Laboratory

Should a central corporate laboratory play a role in this analysis and approval process? It depends. It may be that the testing instruments are very expensive. This equipment may be used only occasionally in a plant lab but frequently in a larger, central laboratory. Should this be the case, it may be more cost-effective to purchase only one unit of each piece of testing equipment and position them in a central laboratory. (Sometimes the reverse is true and equipment used only occasionally in a central lab will be used more frequently in a plant lab.)

Having two laboratories testing and approving a raw material or mechanical part can complicate sample tracking and approval. Systems must be designed so no ambiguity creeps into the approval process and the supplier is informed of approval – or non-approval – in a timely manner.

One factor that could make it advantageous to schedule as much testing as possible in the plant lab is that its personnel may feel a greater sense of urgency in performing the required tests than analysts in a central lab devoted in large part to R&D.

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.