Apple was again awarded pole position in Gartner’s recently released annual Supply Chain Top 25. Although every business highlighted in the report has demonstrated world leading supply chain practices, they are not the only ones that can benefit from effective supply chain management. The competitive nature of today’s business environment means organizations are under constant pressure to develop increasingly resilient supply chains.
The ball point pen is probably one of the most colorful examples of this phenomenon. Although initial designs proved cumbersome, when the first mainstream biro was launched in 1950, it marked a revolution in writing instrumentation. The advanced ball & socket nib allowed ink to flow freely, providing users with a smooth writing experience. Thanks to the specially formulated quick drying ink, the biro offered a cheaper and more convenient alternative to leaky fountain pens.
Given that over 100 billion units have now been sold worldwide, the development of the ball point pen was one of the most successful innovations of the 20th century. Since its launch, the ballpoint pen has grown into an icon and even has its own permanent fixture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Whether you use a ball point pen to jot down a shopping list or to sign a contract, biros have become etched in to everyday life. Despite the role ball point pens play in our daily routines, the effort that goes into manufacturing and distributing this simple product is seldom considered.
With operations stretching across a multitude of international borders and numerous time zones, this everyday product presents a number of logistical complexities. The bestselling manufacturer, BIC, for example, sources the handful of required components from a complicated network of international suppliers. The components are then assembled at various international sites before the completed products are distributed to key markets across the globe.
In addition to the international scale, the materials and manufacturing processes place further strain on the supply chain. The specially formulated ink for instance, is designed to dry almost instantly. To ensure that the mixture has the perfect viscosity, a very precise mix of pigments, resins and solvents is required. Failure to achieve the exact level of fluidity would render the final product useless.
Furthermore, given the super strength properties of the tungsten carbide used to form the ball, a material also used by the military to penetrate amour, extensive processing is required in order to achieve a perfectly spherical shape.
Starting out as a powder, the metal particles are compressed into solid lumps. Using a special abrasive paste which is infused with diamond dust, the tungsten carbide is then ground down over 5 days before being slotted snuggly in to place.
In order to ensure quality, each batch has to pass through a staggering 250 different quality checks. Product integrity is vital and if more than one flaw is found within every 5000 units, the entire batch is scrapped.
Given that a typical ball point pen is retailed at less than $1, any supply chain inefficiency could have a major impact on the bottom line. Failure to co-ordinate all the processes could result in costly bottle necks, leaving customers disappointed. With so many similar products available, these customers would simply turn to the vast array of competing products. Effective supply chain management is therefore vital in order to remain competitive.
While the low price point and competition puts a huge amount of pressure on supply chain management, compared to products with far more components such as a car or phone, the manufacturing and distribution processes involved are relatively simple.
In spite of this, the processes required to source, manufacture and distribute ball point pens reflect the puzzling nature of modern supply chains. Given that every business must contend with their own supply chain challenges, can you think of any other products which also demonstrates the importance of effective supply chain management?