Changing Demand for Products is Causing Supply Chain Disruptions and Spot Shortages in Raw Materials
The coronavirus pandemic has not only been a stark reminder of the importance of public health measures, it’s also taught manufacturers around the world some brutal lessons in operations management as sudden shifts in demand have suddenly turned supply chains upside down.
We begin our look at the effect that burgeoning demand due to Covid-19 can have on manufacturing operations with something that’s close to home for Formaspace: the production of transparent barriers to protect employees at work.
New CDC Guidelines for Reopening Businesses and Schools is Driving High Demand for Transparent Shields that Help Protect against Virus Transmission
As business offices, manufacturing facilities, bars and restaurants, K-12 schools, and universities around the country begin to reopen after an extended Covid-19 lockdown, OSHA and the CDC have issued updated guidelines designed to keep people safe at work.
These newly issued recommendations include wearing masks and incorporating social distancing measures at work.
To comply with these new guidelines, business owners and facility managers are making significant changes to their interior floor plans, such as moving desks and tables further apart.
In cases where it’s not possible to establish a 6-foot separation between workers, the CDC and OSHA recommend taking the following action:
“Install transparent shields (such as clear plastic sneeze guards) or other physical barriers where possible to separate employees and visitors where social distancing is not an option.”
Where Can I Find the Latest CDC and OSHA Recommendations?
Here are the primary guidance websites from the CDC and OSHA:
Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), May 2020
OSHA Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19
In addition, the CDC has detailed guidelines for:
Formaspace Shield Products Can Help You Comply with CDC and OSHA Covid-19 Guidelines
If you’re looking for ways to protect people at your business facility, office, manufacturing plant, laboratory, distribution center, or educational facility, we can help.
Formaspace offers three popular options to help you comply with CDC and OSHA Covid-19 guidelines. We can also build custom furniture solutions to meet your unique specifications at our Austin, Texas factory headquarters.
Formaspace Protective Health Shield
If you need to modify your existing workbenches or desks to comply with OSHA or CDC guidelines, the Protective Health Shield is the right choice. It features high walls made of durable HDPE designed to create physical barriers between people.
Formaspace Protective Workbench Screen
The Formaspace Protective Workbench Screen mounts to new or existing installations of our Basix and Benchmarx workstations* to provide a transparent barrier across the full back width. It mounts directly to the rear struts of the workbench, and no tools are required for installation.
(*Kits for Basix workstations include vertical frame upgrades required to mount the Protective Workbench Screens.)
Formaspace Counter Sneeze Guard
If you have personnel who work directly with the public, such as bank tellers, cashiers, or office workers, the Formaspace Counter Sneeze Guard will provide protection during face-to-face interactions. These tall transparent barriers can be customized as well; for example, you can specify pass-through slots for handling paperwork or making cash transactions.
Are the New CDC and OSHA Regulations Creating Raw Material Shortages in the Transparent Plastics Market?
In what may be an all-too-familiar refrain, the Coronavirus pandemic may be responsible for yet another raw material product shortage.
Thanks to these new CDC and OSHA regulations requiring transparent barriers, the demand for transparent plastic has sent shockwaves through the supply chain.
Manufacturers, including Formaspace, have been facing delivery slowdowns in receiving raw material supplies of professional-quality transparent acrylic plastics (including the brand name Lexan), PMMA plastics (such as the brand name Plexiglas), as well as sheets of other transparent polymers, including polycarbonate (PC) and polyethylene terephthalate-glycol (PET-G).
In response, professional quality plastics manufacturers, such as Germany’s Röhm (the inventor of Plexiglas), have stepped up production shifts to operate around-the-clock to meet the newfound surge in demand.
Unfortunately, in addition to spot shortages of high-quality plastic products, there has been a rise in unscrupulous low-quality plastic materials coming onto the market to take advantage of the current conditions. Many of these transparent plastic products are brittle, scratch easily, produce noxious fumes (due to chemical off-gassing), and are susceptible to yellowing discoloration when exposed to light. As a result, purchasers need to educate themselves before specifying products that incorporate plastic components. Your Formaspace Design Consultant can assist you in making informed decisions.
The Shift from Restaurant Sales to Home Consumer Purchases Has Turned the Food Supply Chain Upside Down
Meanwhile, the food distribution supply chain has faced its own set of unique challenges.
Restaurants and institutional food-service operators (including school cafeterias) were the largest single purchasers of our nation’s food products prior to the Coronavirus outbreak.
However, with the advent of the Covid-19 lockdown, demand suddenly switched. With restaurants and food-service cafeterias closed, consumers (many of whom now found themselves working at home) began preparing home-cooked meals in record numbers.
This, in turn, created a major shock to the food supply chain.
The sudden switch in demand away from restaurants and traditional food-service operators to home cooks caught the food supply chain off guard and has led to spot shortages of many popular ingredients, including flour and yeast (home bread baking has set all-time high records) as well as produce.
Supply chain managers have had to untangle the same kind of logistics issues that deviled one of the first product logistics casualties of Coronavirus: the supply of toilet paper. The reason is the same; food products destined for restaurants are sold in bulk by wholesaler distributors, while products destined for retail consumer sales are generally sold in a parallel, separate distribution chain that focuses on smaller consumer product packaging. Adding to the overall disruption is the sudden rise in demand for home grocery delivery, which adds yet another wrinkle to an already stressed food supply chain.
In response, farmer’s markets and advocates of the farm-to-table movement have stepped up efforts to deliver high-quality produce and meat products directly from farmers and ranchers to consumers; however, these efforts have been fairly local in scope and haven’t been able to scale up their distribution volumes to the sufficient levels needed to feed the nation.
Tragically, farmers who could not find ready markets for their livestock products have had to cull millions of animals during the pandemic outbreak.
But the troubles have not stopped there. As the epidemic progressed, it became clear that workers at meatpacking facilities around the country were becoming infected with Covid-19 in increasing numbers.
This video from the gourmet website Bon Appétit illustrates techniques for butchering a cow into commonly available cuts of meat served in restaurants or cooked at home. As you can see, butchering a cow is an intensive, hands-on process that involves a lot of physical labor.
Today’s meatpacking facilities are extraordinarily efficient – so efficient, in fact, that just a few of these “mega” meatpacking facilities (strategically located around the country) can process most of the nations’ supply of chicken, beef, and pork products.
In normal times, this level of efficiency offers a clear economic advantage.
But from a business continuity / sustainability perspective, this ultra-high-level of production concentration creates a risk along the lines of “putting all your eggs in one basket”— to use the old farming metaphor.
Workers in these facilities traditionally work side-by-side, and, in many cases, the design of existing facility layouts make it difficult to spread workers further apart to create sufficient social distancing while on the job. This may have been a contributing factor in the relatively large number of workers (compared to the general population) who have tragically contracted the virus in recent months.
This is not only a public health crisis, it’s also a food supply crisis. Shutting down one of these mega-facilities for even a few days will most certainly lead to shortages of meat products available to consumers.
Over the long term, automation advocates believe that more robot-based technology solutions could help solve the problem of having too many meatpacking workers in too small a space. While farm-to-table advocates point out that we could create new distribution channels that encourage consumers to buy directly from farmers and ranchers (utilizing the service of local butchers) rather than relying so heavily on just a few centralized mega-meatpacking facilities.
Creating a Domestic Supply Chain for Key Medical Products
The coronavirus outbreak quickly led to worldwide shortages of critical medical devices (such as ICU ventilators) and personal protective equipment (PPE) designed to keep healthcare workers safe.
Early on in the pandemic, public health officials realized that unless drastic measures were taken to slow down the spread of the virus, hospitals could run out of ventilators used to treat critically ill patients who had trouble breathing on their own (due to the virus compromising their lung function.)
Manufacturers around the world stepped up to address the shortages.
For example, the medical device manufacturer Medtronic (a Formaspace customer) elected to publicly post the design specification for their Puritan Bennett™ 560 ventilator in an effort to encourage other manufacturers to begin building ventilators.
General Motors, working in a partnership with the ventilator manufacturer Ventec, quickly set in motion plans to convert an existing facility in Kokomo, Indiana to manufacture critically needed ventilators. Formaspace was part of this effort; we built 500 workstations for the new GM ventilator production line in only 18 days.
Efforts to quickly ramp up the production of urgently needed medical gowns and respirator masks soon ran into a major roadblock: there was a worldwide shortage of high-tech fabrics used to manufacture N-95 masks and Level III and IV surgical isolation gowns.
These are not fabrics in the traditional sense; they are not woven on a loom. Instead, specialized machines (each costing upwards of $4 million or more) create a non-woven material with incredibly fine fibers, some with filaments with diameters less than one micron each.
Creating a high-quality N-95 mask (or Level III and IV surgical isolation gown) typically involves making a three-layer sandwich of these non-woven materials, known as an “SMS” laminate.
The inner and outer layers are made of a non-woven fabric material called spun bond, whose randomized filament layers provide a first layer of filtration protection.
Sandwiched in-between is a layer of so-called melt-blown fabric. This is the most difficult one to manufacture in large quantities but provides the most critical protection for the wearer. Each of the one-micron diameter fibers is created by heating synthetic polymers which are then blown out of individual hand-drilled die tips into a cloud of hot air to form a cotton-candy like sheet of non-woven fabric.
Manufacturing companies around the world are stepping up the production of these critical non-woven materials. Meanwhile, material scientists are also investigating new technologies, such as high-tech nano-scale graphene materials, copper-infused fabrics, or PTFE-coated (Teflon) fabrics that would allow virus particles to “fall off” the surface of fabrics.
Raw material shortages have also affected efforts to ramp up Coronavirus testing efforts.
Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) – and its related variants RT-PCR (Reverse transcription PCR), qPCR (Quantitative PCR), and nuclear-derived rRT-PCR (Real Time RT-PCR) – are most widely used diagnostics used by testing laboratories around the world to identify the DNA and RNA sequences that indicate a patient has had exposure to the Covid-19 virus.
Detailed animation of individual steps used to conduct an rRT-PCR test to identify the Covid-19 virus.
As shown in the video above, each of the steps of PCR analysis requires a number of specific chemical reagent chemicals (and, in the case of rRT-PCR tests, nuclear-derived test materials can be used as well) and, because of high demand, these chemicals have suddenly been in short supply.
The shortage of reagent chemicals slowed down efforts to quickly ramp up Covid-19 testing. But there have been other issues as well; for example, while some testing laboratories had sufficient capacity, many found their services were underutilized during the early phase of the pandemic because they didn’t have existing contracts in place with healthcare providers.
Meanwhile, one of the prominent researchers in the new field of Crispr gene splicing technology, Dr. Zhang, has offered up a Crispr-based alternative to PCR testing, called Sherlock (Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter Unlocking). You can read more about this new virus testing system on Dr. Zhang’s Stop Covid website.
Formaspace is Ready to Help
If you can imagine it, we can build it.
We build solutions that make your facility safer for your workers and more efficient for your operations.
Whether you manage an office building, a research laboratory, manufacturing facility, electronics assembly factory, hospitality operation, or educational institution, we can help.
Find out why leading companies, including General Motors, McDonald’s, Medtronic, Roche, and SpaceX, choose Formaspace furniture solutions for their operations.
Contact your Formaspace Design Consultant today and find out how we can create a custom solution to meet your exact specifications.