What would you do if you received a call from your supplier in China today telling you that production was suspended because pipes froze at the factory? How would you react to news of your supplier’s factory being shut down due to excessive pollution? And what precautions does your supplier have in place to prevent high humidity levels from damaging your goods in storage?
There are many disruptions to manufacturing and chief among them is the environment. Generally, it’s impossible to control factors like local weather and government regulations, particularly if you’re based halfway across the globe.
But despite these hurdles, there are a few examples of environmental problems that can at least be mitigated through proper planning and preparation.
Here are three ways the environment affects manufacturing and what you can do about it:
1. Cold weather and manufacturing
Cold weather is one way the environment affects manufacturing. Cold weather can impact manufacturing in a few ways, from snow storms disrupting shipping to pipes freezing in a factory. Depending on where you’re manufacturing, you’ll want to be sure that the factory’s facilities and surrounding infrastructure aren’t vulnerable to the problems that can arise from cold weather.
Factory workers and cold weather
One way that cold weather can affect manufacturing is by inhibiting workers’ dexterity, especially in a factory that isn’t adequately heated. Workers manufacturing products that are hand-made or require relatively more prevision are more likely to make mistakes if they’re working in an uncomfortably cold environment.
For example, workers soldering printed circuit boards or other electrical components might have difficulty doing their job well if their hands are numb. The mistakes that result usually create material waste and can cause quality defects in the finished product. Factory workstations need to be adequately heated to prevent this. In places where cold weather is less common factories should take precautions in the event of an unusual drop in temperature, such as rotating employees more frequently so they have a chance to warm up.
Cold weather can damage factory equipment
Another issue comes from parts of the factory itself being affected, such as the pipes. Depending on how modern your supplier’s facility is, pipes may freeze and burst, which can cause flooding that damages materials and finished goods and delays production and shipping.
Production machinery can also be vulnerable to cold weather. Without proper insulation, the equipment involved in making your products may quickly deteriorate or run slowly. This can lower production efficiency and introduce quality problems.
An audit of a factory’s quality management systems, often based on ISO 9000 standards, includes checks for equipment calibration and maintenance. These can be valuable for determining if cold weather will pose problems at a factory or if that factory is prepared."#ISO9000 can help you ensure factory equipment can withstand unfavorable conditions"
Cold weather can disrupt logistics and infrastructure
Anyone who’s tried commuting to work or traveling in extreme weather conditions can probably appreciate delays and other problems caused. When it comes to managing supply chain logistics, these same problems can cost factories and importers time and money, especially those that aren’t used to dealing with certain weather conditions.
One such example is shown in factories in Southern China, which are accustomed to hot and humid summers, not freezing rain and temperatures. Taking a look back to January of 2008, blizzards and freezing rain shut major roads and rail lines, grounded flights and caused power blackouts. Thousands of workers were delayed or immobilized by the conditions, and altogether the storms caused 22.1 billion yuan in direct economic losses.
When you consider the delays resulting from damage to infrastructure it’s easy to see where factories and importers pay a price. Find out what action plans your supplier has to deal with situations related to inclement weather. What do management do to protect inventory? When have they halted production or shipping due to weather conditions? These are valuable questions to ask when choosing a supplier.
2. Pollution and manufacturing
Smog has often been an issue in industrialized nations, many of which have reduced its impact by offshoring manufacturing. But we’ve seen that heavy smog has become a more serious problem in many countries that have large concentrations of factories—India and China, in particular.
Deaths related to air pollution and factory relocation
Air pollution in China is blamed for the deaths of 4,400 people every day. And manufacturing is a major contributor for the release of harmful pollutants. Burning coal for energy is also a major factor and much of that energy is used by factories. Occasionally, pollution ratings are so poor that cities like Beijing have issued a “red alert”, suspending factory production and requiring people to stay indoors.
As the severity of China’s pollution continues to catch international attention, government officials have added incentives for relocating factories further inland to areas with lower population away from major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Some local governments are also requiring new factories to install modern pollution-control equipment and adopt procedures for handling emissions.
Pollution fines and factory closures
Sometimes the environment affects manufacturing through the levying of fines and factory closures. A local government in Vietnam fined a sugar factory $21,500 for polluting a local river. Another manufacturer was fined more than $48,000 in Beijing for air pollution. In some cases local governments may fine a factory owner every day they exceed emissions limits until they comply (related: 3 Ways Pollution Affects Manufacturing in China). Factories may even be forced to close down if management can't get pollution under control.
Dealing with pollution and preventing related disruptions
Severe enough violations could effectively run your supplier out of business, leaving you without a partner to manufacture your goods. Unfortunately, there’s no giant fan you can switch on to magically blow smog away. And there’s no easy way to clean up local water supplies polluted by manufacturing waste.
A more practical approach is to conduct an audit of your factory’s environmental management systems, typically based on ISO 14000 standards. It may be difficult to force a supplier to install modern equipment for dealing with pollution. But an audit can reveal areas where a factory stands to save money by reducing waste. And by auditing a potential supplier’s facility before starting production, you can be more confident that factory won’t be shut down for environmental violations.
3. Humidity and manufacturing
Humidity is one way the environment affects manufacturing and products directly. High humidity can affect many aspects of manufacturing, from packaging & storage to building components to assembling the finished product (related: 5 Ways Factory Location Affects Your Order).
The effects of humidity on products and materials
Humidity can affect products and the materials used to manufacture them. For example, a number of problems can occur if electronics are manufactured in an environment with extreme humidity levels, such as:
- Buildup of static charges, which can damage components, in low humidity;
- Decreased insulation resistance in electrolytic capacitors operating in high humidity;
- Increased leakage current and increased gain in transistors in high humidity; and
- Short circuiting due to the buildup of condensation in high humidity
Other products that are especially vulnerable to humidity levels are those made of wood. Furniture and wood molding can warp or become misshapen in a high-humidity environment and can crack in a low-humidity one. Either quality issue is likely to result in customer complaints or unsellable product.
The effects of humidity on packaging and storage
When it comes to limiting the ways the environment affects manufacturing, it’s critical to manage the conditions for storing finished goods. Suppliers and importers need to keep humidity levels in mind when selecting the appropriate product packaging. Cardboard shipper cartons stored in a very humid warehouse for too long can become moldy and wet. They might lose their structural integrity and fall apart during transit, damaging the goods inside."Humidity can destroy your #packaging if not properly accounted for"
Managing humidity to prevent damage
To handle high levels of humidity, manufacturers need to adequately adapt their workshop. They must take certain precautions to keep humidity in the factory at appropriate levels and also understand where products are being shipped so that goods are not adversely affected by environmental changes.
Importers can benefit from maintaining a detailed quality control inspection checklist that addresses any packaging requirements or moisture content tolerances for finished products. You may find, for example, that wood molding needs to be packed in plastic sleeves together with desiccant or silica packets to reduce humidity. Cardboard shipping cartons may need to be double or triple-layered with plastic straps for added durability (related: 5 Packaging Tests Vital for Product Inspection).
Lastly, asking for your supplier’s opinion, or the opinion of a professional QC company, about whether your chosen packaging is suitable can go a long way. Both parties can usually offer advice based on their own experience or that of their customers.
Like any business venture, manufacturing is often full of challenges, setbacks and surprises. Some of these are related to how the environment affects manufacturing. And while some of them are preventable, there are others that simply fall beyond your scope of control.
But even those that are beyond your power can be mitigated somewhat. The solutions provided above are not exhaustive, yet they do embody a common theme: staying ahead of the problem.
By thinking ahead and talking to your supplier about what to do in the event of environmental interference, you can prevent or mitigate disruptions and keep your supply chain intact.
And don't forget to check out the manufacturing podcast episode that covers this topic!
Do you have tips for dealing with these or other environmental disruptions to manufacturing? Share them in the comments below!