Repurposing Manufacturing for a COVID-19 World

Here are some strategies for rapid design and manufacturing solutions for PPE and other essential healthcare equipment.

The demand for PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) in the COVID-19 crisis is sky high, and this demand spike comes at a time when traditional supply chains for these and other healthcare products have been heavily disrupted. Companies are searching for ways to help deliver the products needed for our frontline healthcare workers. Meanwhile, manufacturing companies are trying to do whatever they can to support demand and keep their businesses relevant, as other demand dries up, and economic disruption looms.

COVID-19, coronavirus, manufacturing, design for manufacturing, repurposing manufacturing, PPE, personal protective equipment

Injection molding machines can be used for rapidly switching to healthcare products. (Image source: Fictiv)

But many of these players do not have the support in place to turn around a new design quickly and reliably, or the supply chain experience and network to get production and logistics stood-up almost immediately.

Getting a new product to the consumer doesn’t happen overnight, but right now, there simply isn’t the time to go through all the traditional, tried and tested design cycles. Solutions need to be ready for production in days, not weeks or months. Accelerating this process requires a mammoth team effort and the collaboration, in parallel, of multiple skill sets and disciplines. There are a few key factors that need to be considered. The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted supply, demand and working practices. These disruptions will have to be factored in. At Fictiv, we have lived this experience, designing and bringing a face shield to market at volume in just a few days.

It all Starts with the Design 

Normally, design is a well thought out process that considers numerous factors and involves multiple stakeholders to create the best design to fit the consumer’s needs, the brand, the relevant certifications and, of course, the manufacturing process and supply chain. That normally takes weeks and multiple iterations and prototypes. Today, there simply isn’t enough time! We need to design fast, while still getting a robust, reliable product out. 

We started our process with an open source design that was already approved and compliant. It’s worth spending some time reviewing that design and adjusting to improve performance or solve specific problems and suit the chosen manufacturing method. Design modifications meant we could reduce the weight and ease of use.

Right now, we must design for the supply chain and the manufacturing process. There’s no point designing something that can’t be built on the volumes needed and delivered when and when the product is needed.

Picking the Right Manufacturing Method

3D printing has come to the rescue, in many cases, because of the speed at which parts can be turned around. Additive manufacturing can certainly be the fastest route to the first part, but it won’t be the fastest route to 10,000 parts. Most PPE products are needed in tens of thousands every day. Good DfM (Design for Manufacturing) is essential; this product will need to ramp fast and trouble-free. There are online and on-the-fly DfM tools available, and some allow you to select specific materials and to review different manufacturing methods. We selected injection molding based on the volumes we expected, producing tooling to mold the face shield frame and die cut the shield itself. 

Design for Supply Chain

The choice of manufacturing technique and partners are entirely interlinked and an absolute priority when speed and reliability are the drivers. Select a robust and reliable process and can ramp to volumes fast. And even though speed is the order of the day, don’t allow quality to slip. People are counting on these products to be safe and reliable.

Sometimes, the easiest and safest route is to select a vendor you know intimately. Current suppliers on your AVL (Approved Vendor List), with the appropriate approvals, are a good starting point. However, that avenue might be closed because you are shifting to a new solution, or because the existing vendors have been disrupted.

If supply chain disruption or factory closures have closed the AVL route, using an online platform, where pre-vetted manufacturers can be matched to demand, is a good alternative. Make sure that the manufacturing partner has secure stock and access to the materials they need to make your product. 

Lastly, you might want more than one supplier to avoid further disruption and ensure continuity. In fact, you might need multiple vendors to avoid further disruption, ensure continuity, or to cope with your volumes. We chose to make three sets of tools in two different countries, first, to meet demand, but also to prepare for potential additional disruption.

Design for Fulfillment

Create a product that can reach the hands of the consumer where and when it is needed. Today, that means “now” and “everywhere”! If the best solution for volume and price is to import the product, get out in front of the logistics issues as soon as possible. More than ever, buyers need reliable delivery on short lead times. 

Be certain the relevant permits are in place. The entire fulfilment process, from order through manufacturing quality control, packing, transport and final delivery needs to be tied down, with the addition of a contingency plan if something goes wrong.

Transport has been hugely challenged in this crisis. Import approvals are backing up, transport services are bogged down by volume and costs are unusually high. It couldn’t be further from business as usual.

Simplicity is your Friend

Open source designs are great; make sure they are ready for volume. Select a reliable manufacturing method and partner. Work with what you have and what you know. This is no time to trial an exotic material or process. Try to de-risk as much as possible by having some build in redundancy in your supply chain. And plan every detail, even to the last mile of the delivery process.

Design for manufacturing is a team sport. Get your team together on a conference call and make some magic happen. Frontline healthcare professionals are risking their lives doing amazing work right now, so let’s see what technology and manufacturing can do to help!

Jean Olivieri is COO of Fictiv. She spent the last three decades in a range of senior positions overseeing product design, supply chain, production, and operations duties. She has held a number of procurement roles at Motorola over her seventeen years with the company, including Director, Global New Product Sourcing. As Director, iPod Operations for Apple she was responsible for annually transitioning all four new iPod designs into production. 

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