Many consumers are wondering why it seems that supplies are running low in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Chair and professor of industrial systems engineering at the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology Purush Damodaran, Ph.D. explains the challenges presented by the pandemic.
What challenges are the manufacturers facing that is making it difficult to keep up with demand? i.e. related to transportation, materials needed, packaging, distribution?
“These are unprecedented times. Most manufacturers either operate on a make-to-order or make-to-stock mode. In make-to-order, the manufacturer begins manufacturing after the customer places a firm order. However, in make-to-stock, a forecast is used to build finished goods inventory. When a customer places an order, the manufacturer or a distributor fills the order from the finished goods inventory. Due to sudden and unexpected surge in demand for some of the products (e.g. masks, hand sanitizers, water bottles, toilet tissues, etc.) the manufacturers are caught off-guard. The forecasting models couldn’t have predicted these sudden changes in demand. Seasonality can be predicted with some accuracy, but these are not seasonal changes.
Even if the manufacturer has the capacity to expand production, they also will face other challenges such as shortages with raw materials, longer lead times with deliveries from the suppliers, price gouging, excessive employee absenteeism, employees forced to work from home, a reduced number of trucks available to move finished goods to retailers/distributors, etc. Any undue strain on the logistics network is going to negatively affect the quick response needed. While we want to quickly produce and distribute, the quality of the product and safety of the workers cannot be compromised. The number of trucks in the distribution system is fixed. We cannot suddenly increase that capacity unless we already have many trucks that are sitting idle.”
Is there anything that could be done to help streamline the process?
“We need to prioritize our needs and divert resources where they are needed the most. For example, does it make sense to run many clinics at different locations or ask all the doctors to move to a central location, so they are better used? In some locations/clinics, patient traffic can be slower than others. At the same time, channeling all the patient traffic to one location can also increase the chances of spreading the disease.”
How can medical centers manage the workflow of patients more efficiently?
“With the number of cases reported increasing, more and more citizens are growing anxious and are prone to going to a hospital or clogging the phone lines. Managing patient flow is very challenging. Having too many patients in the hospital/clinic is only helping the virus to spread more rapidly. Establishing a hotline and a robust automated or manned team to triage will help reduce some traffic. Also encouraging the patients to get screened in the lobby, parking lots, or other secure areas for simple screening procedures (i.e. taking vitals) could also minimize patient to patient transmission. Our emergency rooms are already strained, with the growing demand it is only pushing our healthcare providers to their limits.
Public education through regular broadcasts can also help mitigate unnecessary anxiety. For example, my doctor’s office has already reached out to me through text messages and given me directions to access useful information. Some clinics are offering video consulting. While caregivers are selflessly helping us, they should also care for their own well-being. I am not sure if the hospitals are reaching out to students/residents in the residency program helps build the capacity. Drive-thru clinics can also be a good solution.”
Professor Damodaran is chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Northern Illinois University. He holds a master’s degree in industrial engineering from NIU and a Ph.D. in industrial engineering from Texas A&M University. His expertise is in the area of large-scale optimization, logistics, scheduling, simulation, lean and six sigma. He has worked with many companies for the past 20 years to solve problems that arise in his research expertise, directly benefiting the companies while facilitating experiential learning opportunities for his students and building his research portfolio.