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Manufacturers Reimagine their Supply Chains in a COVID-19 World

April 14, 2020
How the world’s manufacturers are retooling their operations and supply chains to meet the needs of a world pandemic.

Facing an unprecedented situation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, companies around the globe are reimagining their supply chains, coming up with innovative ways to keep their operations running and finding new ways to help out during this crisis.   

Usually focused on recovering electronic and technology assets, Globaltek Components recently shifted its focus to importing critical healthcare supplies, according to NH Business Review. The company is working directly with its international partners to secure certified medical supplies of personal protective equipment, such as masks—a shift made in direct response to clients in the area’s surrounding healthcare community.

“Our core business has always been focused in the procurement of materials and filling shortages pertaining to the electronics sector,” CEO Jason Brindamour told the publication.

“With our overseas relationships in the industry we started hearing of the rapidly declining conditions in Asia as this unprecedented pandemic unfolded, firsthand from affected people,” he continued. “We immediately decided to take a proactive position in hopes that we could do our part in helping healthcare professionals safely provide care to patients in need.”

Come Together, Right Now

Right now, a consortium of manufacturers is working together to fulfill an order from the government for 10,000 ventilators after ministers called on companies to join a nationwide effort, according to Independent. Vital equipment for patients who are suffering from COVID-19’s most severe effects, ventilators take over a patient’s breathing function, pushing air into the lungs and keeping them alive for longer as their body fights the infection.

Among the consortium’s members are Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Microsoft. Other members include Ford, GKN Aerospace, Inspiration Healthcare, Meggitt, Renishaw, Siemens, Thales, Ultra Electronics and Unilever.

The UK currently has just over 8,000 of the vital medical devices—far short of the tens of thousands expected to be needed when the pandemic reaches its peak over the coming days and weeks,” the publication reports. The Ventilator Challenge UK consortium will produce two types of ventilator. One is a slight update to an existing design by Oxfordshire-based firm Penlon, aimed at speeding up the assembly process. The second is a device called the ParaPac ventilator by Luton-based Smiths Medical.

Formula One teams like Haas F1, Red Bull Racing, Racing Point, Renault Sport Racing, McLaren and Mercedes are also involved in the effort. To date, Independent says more than 3,000 firms have offered to help with ventilator production.

Doing Their Part

In a report on how businesses are pivoting to help tackle coronavirus shortages, Fortune says

shortages of vital equipment were already common across the U.S., well before the predicted peak of the coronavirus pandemic. “In New York City, doctors and nurses have been forced to improvise, including using trash bags to replace medical scrubs and protective gowns,” it says. “In California, nurses have protested limited access to personal protective equipment (PPE).”

Conglomerate 3M has ramped up to “maximum production” of PPE, including N95 respirators, with all such products being diverted from retail outlets to medical personnel. Honeywell says it has already more than doubled its production of the masks, according to Fortune.

To help make up some of the dearth, both manufacturers and importers are retooling factories, reshaping supply chains and navigating red tape in a bid to save lives—and, in some cases, soften huge blows to their usual lines of business.

From Auto-making to Face Mask Production

On March 31, GM announced that it would start making much-needed medical face masks. According to TechCrunch, it took the automaker less than seven days to go from nothing to producing the first production-made mask. The automotive giant expects to deliver 20,000 masks on April 8 and to be producing 50,000 masks a day once the production line is at full capacity, the publication notes.

To create this manufacturing line, GM sourced material from its existing supply chain and acquired manufacturing equipment from JR Automation and Esys Automation. It also created an ISO Class 8-equivalent cleanroom in its Warren manufacturing plant.  

“The first people we called were those who work with fabric vehicle components,” said GM’s Karsten Garbe. “In a few days, the company’s seat belt and interior trim experts became experts in manufacturing face masks.”  

Not All Easy

Smaller companies are also pitching in to help the world fight COVID-19, TechCrunch reports. Alcohol brands are turning their attention to making hand sanitizer to distribute in communities experiencing shortages; 3D printing companies are working on new ways to manufacture personal protective equipment and swabs for COVID-19 testing; and one fast-fashion retail startup is teaching its tailors and seamstresses how to make cloth masks for consumer protection.

These monumental shifts aren’t always easy to implement. “Redirecting plants to make completely different products will take a long time and a huge effort—possibly too long for some companies to help with medical gear shortages that are becoming more acute every day,” Yahoo! Finance reports.

“When you are repurposing a factory, it really depends on how similar the new product is to the existing products in your product line,” University of Notre Dame Professor Kaitlin Wowak told Yahoo! “It’s going to be a substantial pivot to start producing an entirely different item.”

About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.

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