Mark Shortt

U.S. Manufacturers’ Heroic Response to COVID-19 Crisis Provides New Model of Supplier Resilience

By adapting and repurposing their operations, numerous American companies have risen to the challenges of manufacturing critically needed medical parts and supplies during the pandemic.

We didn’t need COVID-19 to remind us how important medical devices and equipment are. But the sudden emergence of the novel coronavirus and the cruel devastation that followed rained new urgency on our need to be prepared for future pandemics and emergencies.

The disease killed more than 170,00 people in the U.S. from the end of February through August 18—a span of just over five-and-a-half months—while infecting nearly 5.5 million Americans who were diagnosed with the illness, according to statistics compiled by NBC News. But when the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a crippling blow to medical supply chains, manufacturers from all across America stepped heroically into the breach to help save peoples’ lives.

Nearly six months later, their ongoing efforts are still essential to meeting critical needs for medical-grade face masks, face shields, high-performance testing swabs, and parts for everything from ventilators to diagnostic equipment, fluid delivery systems, and hospital beds and carts.

Automotive and aerospace manufacturers, among others, have repurposed their production lines to tackle demanding cross-industry projects. These nimble companies, already steeped in the ways of high-quality manufacturing, have turned on a dime to meet urgent needs for life-saving medical parts and equipment. They’ve been joined by a deep bench of contract manufacturers and job shops that have contributed production services ranging from CNC machining to metal fabrication, injection molding, PCB assembly, and additive manufacturing.

Early in the crisis, automotive giants Ford and GM made headlines by jumping into the fray, retooling their factories to make ventilators and bringing their suppliers along with them. ATron Group, a versatile, AS9100 certified aerospace supplier in Dallas, pivoted its operations to build ventilators after being chosen by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as one of eight U.S. companies licensed to manufacture its VITAL ventilator.

All told, the American companies that have stepped up—and are continuing to step up—span the ranks of OEMs, high-tier suppliers, and contract manufacturers. By applying their expertise in design, engineering, and manufacturing, along with their knowledge of qualified domestic sources, they’ve bucked the odds to build U.S.-made parts, components, and products. Their emergency production has had a dual impact, contributing to medical and economic well-being.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of making essential protective gear available to doctors, nurses, and other frontline medical personnel, as well as first responders. Likewise, for parts that end up in ventilators, test swabs, blood analyzers, and equipment used to analyze saliva-based tests. On top of that, manufacturers have helped maintain jobs by keeping their employees working at a time of high unemployment. Some have even hired additional workers to help meet surging demand for face masks, respirators, face shields, and other items.

At least until a safe and effective vaccine is widely available to all, that demand is expected to remain strong. Production of PPE, unlike at the beginning of the outbreak, is now aimed at meeting the needs of a wider spectrum of citizens from all walks of life—from factory workers to retail and office workers, restaurant and food service workers, students and educators, and airline travelers, to name a few.

Ability to Adapt or Repurpose Operations Is Key

 In April, Design-2-Part surveyed more than 2,600 contract manufacturers, job shops, and suppliers throughout North America to find out about their capabilities and readiness to help  manufacture critically needed medical products during the COVID-19 crisis. Respondents reported a wide range of parts manufacturing and product development services, led by CNC machining (38 respondents), metal fabrication (26 respondents), plastic injection molding (19 respondents), and electronics manufacturing/printed circuit board assembly (19 respondents).

Beyond these capabilities, what really stood out was the high percentage of companies that indicated they were ready, willing, and able to do whatever was necessary to help the cause, including pivoting from their normal operations to support COVID-19 containment efforts. While 176 respondents (92 percent) reported having available capacity to take on new orders for parts, 120 (63 percent) indicated they could retrofit, retool, or otherwise adapt their operations to produce critical parts needed for use by medical/healthcare personnel, emergency first responders, and other essential services personnel whose work requires them to be in close contact with the public.

That flexibility signals a new model of supplier resilience, and could be a sign of things to come. In an interview with D2P, Brian Marks, J.D., Ph.D., executive director, entrepreneurship and innovation program, and senior lecturer of economics and business analytics at the University of New Haven’s Pompea College of Business, said that small manufacturers who have an entrepreneurial mindset and can transform and redeploy their assets—particularly for healthcare purposes—have a better chance of surviving economic storms.

“If I were to advise a small manufacturer, I’d say, ‘Think about your operations, and think about something that could be allied to what you’re doing for healthcare.’ Because healthcare crises are going to be, no doubt, in the forefront of everyone’s minds.”

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