Industry will need to collaborate to increase production of medical ventilators © TASS/ Getty Images
Industry will need to collaborate to increase production of medical ventilators © TASS/ Getty Images

Coronavirus: how does procurement pivot from cars to ventilators?

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
17 March 2020

The UK government’s call for industry to help increase production of ventilators in response to the coronavirus outbreak will put procurement professionals centre stage.

Health secretary Matt Hancock, speaking on The Andrew Marr Show, said the UK had 5,000 medical ventilators but needed more and firms including carmakers and construction equipment maker JCB had been approached.

Buyers will be critical in enabling firms to pivot to new production processes, because they have a unique insight in the capabilities of suppliers and their supply chain networks.

Vauxhall and Airbus are reported to be offering to 3D-print parts as part of efforts to produce 20,000 ventilators in as little as two weeks. More than 60 companies have responded to the government's call.

Richard Wilding, professor of supply chain strategy at Cranfield School of Management, told SM: “Procurement is critical in understanding the extended supply chain so when an organisation says, ‘We want to mobilise the supply chain network to make this needed product’, they are able to contact suppliers who have links into those networks.

“They [procurement professionals] might know if suppliers already supply the medical industry. Procurement can share that information; this can then enable a manufacturer to create a new [supply chain] network.”

Wilding said industry collaboration would be required. “There maybe other industries who could potentially generate components for ventilators but it then it requires someone to pull it all together and manufacture them,” he said.

“It will be a matter of industry coming together and seeing what capabilities there are in their networks.

“At the end of the day to make this work, procurement needs to have an understanding of the manufacturing capabilities their suppliers have.

“Procurement professionals should be talking to manufacturing colleagues and engineers to understand what they might need. Cross functional teams will need to be created to enable this.”

Dr Jonathan Owens, programme director for business and management at the University of Salford, said supply chains would need to be redirected.

“The first question is, the supply chain running into where the ventilators are currently made, are there enough suppliers to direct that into other areas?” he told SM.

“There are raw materials to come in and the supply chain to be redirected. When [ventilators are] being manufactured there are input and output supply chains. Assuming they can do all that, it’s a very critical piece of apparatus, what happens it if goes wrong?”

Owens said such a move would be challenging for a firm such as JCB. “Changing your production lines for a different flavour of crisps can take hours. Changing the colour of paint on a car production line takes 12 hours. We are now looking at something that has never been done before. There’s no ventilation system in a JCB. The closest is probably air conditioning. Changing that sort of system and building up capacity, that preparation should have been started weeks ago to give industry a chance to achieve this. It’s worrying.”

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