Distribution: better safe than sorry

4 min read

A few fixing and fastener distributors have branched out into non-production items such as personal protective equipment, PPE. It’s a sign of the times, for more than one reason, reports Will Dalrymple

Over the past 18 months, few products have come to symbolise the pandemic as much as face masks and disinfectant hand gel.

Component and fastener distributor Supply Technologies (01915 195 600), a distributor of Southco and Stanley Engineered Fasteners, among others, has played a role in this supply chain for NHS trusts in Wales and the Midlands, it reports. It has provided not only masks but also face shields, gloves, aprons, goggles and air filtration units.

Now, it has announced plans to increase sales of PPE to industrial clients by augmenting operations in its Boldon, Tyne and Wear location, through what it describes as its direct purchasing partnerships with manufacturers.

The company’s director of business development, UK, Gary Russell, says that customers’ needs for PPE, augmented during the COVID pandemic, will continue to remain over the next few years.

“We have utilised our network of branches to service this demand, but recognise that it’s necessary to have a regional base in the North East in order to ensure a regular and consistent supply of PPE that can be quickly dispatched to customers across the north of England and Scotland.”


It is not the only fastener supplier to focus on this market. At manufacturer and supplier Optimas (01452 880500), Craig Spencer was appointed in April as head of MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) to set up a new division to supply PPE, tools, consumables for such operations.

This means both an expansion of the range of products on offer, as well as the types of customers, Spencer explains.

He says: “On a global level, Optimas supplies OEMs mainly with direct materials: fixings and fasteners. Although we have been asked by customers to develop that in the past, it’s never gone further. Obviously there’s an opportunity to develop our relationship further by implementing other products and solutions. This also broadens our appeal to other sectors. Previously, we wouldn’t have targeted oil and gas or healthcare by supplying products other than direct materials.”

According to Spencer the corporate initiative starts with PPE, which is required by many kinds of industrial customers, plus abrasives and adhesives, janitorial supplies, greases, sealants and tooling, as well as batteries and belts and bearings, if required.

To organise and display these and other wares, two catalogues are currently in development. A PPE-specific catalogue has been developed with a partner, and a catalogue covering machine tooling, cutting tools and hand tools is in development. Alongside both will be e-commerce platforms to take internet orders. Physical retail spaces are not currently in the plan, owing to their cost and the amount of existing competition.

Customer service of course goes beyond a warehouse operation, so Optimas is also arranging sales and technical training of its own staff on these product lines for pre-sales support. For example, it is offering a technical course for sales managers on adhesives applications engineering. In addition, during the launch phase, it is leaning on suppliers. “Customers do want expertise. That will take years to develop fully, so in the meantime we are relying on our partners. They are selling the products every day, so are better placed to have direct contact with customers,” says Spencer.

Trained-up Optimas staff can supply specifications and application knowledge. But on top of that, the company is also bringing its vendor management services to PPE and MRO products and customers. Spencer adds: “In terms of PPE, they can audit the customer with partners, if they are actually using the correct products, and rationalising supply. Also, we can cater for on-site prescription eyewear; an optician can be booked to come on site and test there, rather than having customers issuing vouchers.”

‘Rationalising supply’ means reducing the number of suppliers. The business development manager adds: “Customers want some sort of one-stop shop, if they can. The extent [to which that is developed] depends on the customer and requirements. Big MRO requests for quotations can have anything and everything in there. Sometimes we can’t supply everything, but there is a willingness to try.”


PPE is also a topic of particular recent focus for TFC (01435 866011). Group business development director Chris Billinge says: “The core of TFC is fasteners, and our main proposition is vendor-managed inventory. With that, there is an opportunity for all sorts of product lines, way beyond fasteners. The whole proactive benefit of the VMI system is really about helping supply chain management, and that gets us involved in all sorts of sources. PPE has been a natural extension of ours for some time, although for the last 12-18 months it has been a sharply-focused topic.”

He adds: “We get asked to source all sorts of strange things. It [PPE] is a natural extension for customers with a core of fast-moving fasteners. The periphery extension is almost limitless.”

Unlike fasteners, these products are not placed on the assembly line in Kanban bins. While a certain level of throughput of fasteners is required to justify the service, PPE involves a much broader range of products and volumes. But, he continues, a lot of manufacturers would have huge volumes of some PPE items. Left unchecked and not managed, costs can run out of control. He offers an example of safety gloves, which comes in various sizes and varieties and are provided for different types of compliance.

He adds that the VMI system automatically regulates the amount of material customers have in place and responds to demand. It consolidates suppliers, to streamline order processing, and create guaranteed supply. “Instead of trading with 20 suppliers, you trade with one: there’s one purchasing process, one invoice, one communication channel for the customer,” states Billinge.

“Once they’ve seen VMI benefits, it’s natural to look at different materials. It’s easy to see the efficiency of supply consolidation,” he adds, saying that this is how PPE fits in. “It’s not quite the same; you can’t supply through Kanban, but you can make it less of a distraction to a manufacturing business.”

He points out that PPE is well-suited to a common method of VMI used by TFC (and others): industrial vending machines, which store items in a secure unit until called up by a specific user. “A lot of manufacturing businesses have three key criteria for PPE: that it’s secure, that it doesn’t leak out of the system, and to know that it has been issued. So vending as a process is very relevant; it brings control and a record that the item has been issued, so companies cover all the bases when needing to demonstrate due care.”

This is backed up by stocks of parts, either physical or committed purchase, held by TFC at a depot near a customer. It has six locations in Great Britain, one in Northern Ireland, two in Germany and one in Czech Republic. “We have an ongoing strategy to make sure we are close to customers, especially for VMI. We have to be on site and be their eyes and ears, so need to be regularly physically present,” Billinge concludes.