There are more than four million confirmed cases of the coronavirus around the globe, and the World Health Organization estimates that one in six people affected will require medical assistance. Covid-19 attacks the respiratory system, making ventilators a critical requirement to support normal breathing while the patient fights the virus. But as cases are rising, so demand is soaring worldwide.
Image: ©2020 Smiths Medical
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock estimated the nation would need around 18,000 ventilators to manage hospital admissions at peak virus point, posing the question - how do we rapidly accelerate the production rate of ventilators to meet the need? To solve the problem, the government setup a consortium of industrial and technology firms, named VentilatorChallengeUK, to collectively deliver a super supply mission.
Under the challenge, Thales in the UK expedited the delivery of 8,000 units in one of the two approved designs - the Smiths Medical paraPAC plus ventilators - by coordinating the capabilities of six different manufacturers to reach a steady rate of production.
“The ventilator challenge has been one of solving complex supply chain issues in challenging timescales and under unusual business conditions and it has been very much a team effort,” says Kate Cox, Thales head of procurement.
Procurement a "pivotal role"
Thales led a workstream to manage production of the printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs) of the ventilator units. For this, the procurement team had to work with the original manufacturer to help source materials for the firms making the PCBAs and associated hardware, develop testing methodologies for each manufacturer, and create operating guides for users.
This huge effort required the company to secure 1.8m electronic components to be used in 36,000 separate parts for the ventilators. With demand outstripping supply, the company hit a series of hurdles in terms of dwindling resources and increasing costs.
“The mantra throughout the supply chain became ‘We will beat this – we support the NHS’,” says Cox. “At the same time as many companies were stopping work, we were engaging with our suppliers to ensure they were ramping up production while setting up Covid-19-resilient practices, such as social distancing and implementing personal protective equipment in their factories.
“Our procurement team was and continues to be instrumental in working with the supply chain to support production commitments and problem-solve ways to set up additional capacity in the supply chain. This included implementing a multiple sourcing approach and working with the incumbent supplier, Nemco, to replicate their production and test processes in other capable UK suppliers, in order to ramp up quickly to the required manufacturing volumes.”
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Logistics and Onshoring
It seemed that each solution pointed to another, as the need for multiple sourcing and new suppliers raised the question of onshoring procurement activities for the long term.
Reduced passenger flights were severely impacting air freight routes, including from Asia and the US, causing long delays on parts deliveries, prompting Thales to restructure its global approach to procurement and establish a UK-centric supply chain.
“We set up an onshore high-capacity UK source for some PCBAs that were being made abroad in order to ensure that we had a UK supply to mitigate risks associated with offshore manufacturing or freight transport of those items due to the impact of Covid-19. Setting up this second source in the UK meant we had to design and manufacture new test sets – which the Thales engineers achieved within a week,” Cox says.
Business continuity was finally looking achievable, as Thales’ suppliers were now operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the firm had arranged priority shipment agreements with a courier to manage stock flow. Meanwhile, the company implemented separate shift patterns for production lines to limit any risk of cross-contamination, and rolled out protection and distancing measures for staff.
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