Ben Ruddell, director and professor in the School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Systems at Northern Arizona University, offers a perspective on whether we can expect another wave of shortages of essential products on store shelves this year.
“I would describe it as glitchy, but not systematically broken,” Ruddell says of the current state of the supply chain. That said, the system “is under a lot of stress.” People getting sick from COVID-19 can still lead to random and temporary shutdowns of distribution centers, as happened recently to an Arizona grocer. The result was empty shelves for a few days.
The current situation differs from that of the early days of the pandemic. “People have learned to adapt,” Ruddell says. “They’ve gotten used to a slightly bumpier road.” As a result, there has been less of the panic buying that was rampant in 2020. “We’re not seeing hoarding behavior,” he adds.
In the months ahead, Ruddell doesn’t expect another wave of shortages of non-perishable necessities. However, occasional “glitches” are likely to occur throughout the summer, and possibly into the fall. More troublesome is the short-term outlook for fuel supplies, which are under growing pressure as people begin traveling again and consumption rises. Fossil fuel production decreased in 2020 in response to cratering demand, with producers mothballing facilities, and it’s going to take time to ramp back up. While fuel shortages are unlikely this year, prices will surge, Ruddell predicts.
Technology stands to play an important role in avoiding a repeat of the supply chain woes of 2020, Ruddell says, citing blockchain and radio frequency tags as tools that can effectively track changes in the location of product during emergencies. But Ruddell adds that companies need to balance their desire for efficiency with a focus on resilience and buffer stock.
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