• Image: Getty Images.
    Image: Getty Images.

The domestic supply chain headache triggered by Covid and exacerbated by various climate events affected the whole nation. West Australian state director of the Supply Chain and Logistics Association of Australia, Brian Lynn, reflects on the specific issues encountered by the state.

As challenges go the last three years have been the equivalent of the Ninja Warrior Australia course for Western Australian supply chain partners.

Overlaid on the backdrop of Covid and Western Australia’s (necessary but painful) border restrictions was the ‘Warped Wall’ of the early 2022 Trans-Australia rail line washout and the catastrophic war in Ukraine.

Even in the early rounds of the contest, supply chain went from being a term only mentioned in industry circles to a position of prominence in the mainstream press. Lockdowns announced with minimal notice threw the public into a tailspin of panic buying of the most unlikely products (toilet roll, bleach, cat food, and staples such as pasta and rice).

As local reserves were quickly exhausted, shoppers began to release their reliance on eastern state supplies, and the fragility of the air, rail, and road connections with these resources. (80 per cent of Western Australia’s supermarket goods reportedly come from ‘over east’).

The difficulties experienced by supply chain systems reacting to massive unpredictable surges of demand became all too apparent. Retailers battled to secure alternative sources of supply and to restrict demand by imposing buying limits on the most sought-after items.

Consumers started noticing that they couldn’t be brand fussy when shopping. They had to make do with what was there or use an alternative (often) locally sourced product.

In contrast to the scarcity of consumer goods, the protected nature of the Western Australian industry and its previous reliance on overseas and interstate workers, employees were at a premium. It meant they could therefore negotiate higher salaries and be pickier about the roles that they were prepared to undertake.

Tourism and hospitality were caught between the pincers of increased local demand (due to the almost total restriction on overseas and interstate travel); constraints of supply caused by social distancing (and therefore venue capacity limiting); and a huge decrease in the availability of labour.

 Meanwhile, demand was booming for camping and caravanning gear, four-wheel drives, and all the accessories.

In turn, the increased demand for local food products was greatly constrained by the lack of transient labour to harvest and package produce due to hard border restrictions.

Border and travel restrictions meant that flights to and from the west became uneconomic for most operators, with the spin off effect severely limiting the capacity for piggy-back air freight movements.

The supply chain industry had to become creative. The big supermarkets combatted rail issues by chartering container ships andmoving goods from east to west by water. Then, of course, the ports became log jammed, and by the time goods started to flow smoothly, the rail line had reopened.

When the Western Australian borders reopened in March 2022, the next challenge was upon us. Covid spread through the workforce and labour – rather than inventory – became the scarce resource.

The time lapse between Covid impacting the east and the west if anything, prolonged its effect in the west.

As soon as transport links reopened and the initial burst of back logged shipments arrived, it became apparent the warehousing labour shortages in the eastern states and a scarcity of drivers across the country would hamper the ongoing flow of materials.

Many drivers were also unwilling to deliver loads to the state due to the risk of being trapped by a snap border lockdown.

Once the eastern states stabilised and many restrictions, including travel, were removed, Western Australia’s infection rate soared, consequently affecting the local industry’s ability to meet local demands.

From local to global

Overlaying all the above has been the impact of the war in Ukraine. Manufacturing and food staples have become scarcer and more expensive, and above all the cost of fuel has rocketed, vastly changing
the economics of individual traffic flows.

Once the dust has settled, from a supply chain perspective it will be fascinating to see the legacy of the last three years.

In the main, businesses and families have survived; a triumph for supply chain adaptability and resilience, and the flexibility of its planners, managers, and operators (aided by locally generated wealth from the resources industry).

Without doubt, given how the last two years have shown its critical role in daily life, supply chain management must be given more weight as a critical discipline.

This is a key driver of the Supply Chain and Logistics Association of Australia’s objective to support the advancement of the industry by championing collaboration, innovation, and success.

Supply chain practitioners and business leaders have (hopefully) learned to become more agile and responsive, and also more aware of the need for technology tools, and regular, detailed, and mutually beneficial interactions with supply chain partners.

The need for diverse sourcing and transportation alternatives have been noted, and (as fuel prices soar) the need for greener, more energy efficient means of doing business observed.

The supply chain ninjas haven’t yet reached and scaled the Warped Wall and rung the sweet bell of success, but they’ve circumnavigated a vast array of shelf grabs and salmon ladders to get close to it.

All-in-all it’s been (and still is) a fascinating time to have been involved in the industry in the west and there’s plenty of material for supply chain students and leaders to train on before the next great obstacle challenge arrives.

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