COVID-19: How quickly can manufacturing respond to the surge in demand?

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership is helping companies ramp up production of badly needed personal protective equipment and other medical supplies.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership is helping companies ramp up production of badly needed personal protective equipment and other medical supplies. (Wikimedia)

Since the White House put out a request last week asking for help from manufacturers who “donate and provide and/or produce within two weeks large-scale quantities of critical supplies to help the nation respond to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Buckley Brinkman’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing.

Brinkman is the executive director and CEO of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing & Productivity, part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP). This nation-wide network consists of 51 MEP Centers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, with over 1400 manufacturing experts and advisors that provide assistance to any manufacturer.

What’s been keeping Brinkman busy this past week has been the response to ad hoc calls that have gone out across the country for help from manufacturers, at both the state and at local level. The White House also asked the National Association of Manufacturers to put out a survey to each of their members to ask them what they would be able to produce.

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“The situation has been very radical and fast-changing, and the response to this ‘recruitment effort’—if that’s what you want to call it—has been considerable,” says Brinkman. “At this point, the industry is just wrapping our head around the issue and what it’s going to take.”

As manufacturers that are in a position to pivot to meet the surging demand for medical supplies are identified, Buckman says that it won’t be as quick as flipping a switch.

First, there is the issue of shortages of raw materials—whether pulpwood or isopropyl alcohol—that go into these products. “The focus has been on personal protection equipment and other finished goods, but the reality is that we have a whole supply chain that’s being taxed right now,” says Brinkman. “The entire distribution pipeline will need to be flexed.”

As a case in point, he says that the Ohio MEP Center was in touch with a manufacturer making a large volume of a product related to hand sanitizer. “And although from a production standpoint they could pivot quite easily, they would need a source of isopropyl alcohol to get started,” he says.

Second, there is basic production expertise that’s required to make a change in manufacturing lines—however modest. “If it’s a company that is already in the segment but manufacturing a slightly different product, they would still need to some alteration of the equipment and the packaging before they are fully off and running,” Buckman noted.

And here is where he sees the MEP being able to jump in and help. “One advantage, so to speak, is that MEP is already in the neighborhood. We’ve been working with small- to medium-size manufacturers for 30 years. The thing that we can really bring to bear is helping companies come up the learning curve—quickly.“

Through its cooperative agreement with NIST, the MEP network is given a wide amount of latitude in helping manufacturers in all segments to develop their individual strategies. And it has a track record of success. According to the NIST website, “For every one dollar of federal investment in FY 2019, the MEP National Network generated $33.80 in new sales growth and $32.20 in new client investment. This translates into $4.7 billion in new sales. During this same time, for every $1,221 of federal investment, the Network created or retained one manufacturing job. “

The third issue in ramping up manufacturing of scarce supplies will be around certifications and qualifications. While Congress is working on the issue of streamlining regulations, an emergency use order would mean that a manufacturer could start producing without being certified. But Buckman points out that manufacturers will still need to prepare for being certified at some future date.

And the last challenge will be connecting these new suppliers with their customers—making sure that the finished products are delivered quickly and efficiently to the entities with the most need.

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