COVID-19 drives home need for supply chain resilience - here's what is working

COVID-19 has spotlighted the importance of supply chain - especially accentuating the need for more resilience in the chain. You'd be hard-pressed to hear many people in the general population talking about supply chain until these past few months.

Everything we use daily has a supply chain, but we often are not aware of it until it’s interrupted. The viral pandemic has brought that home loud and clear.

Typically, supply chain is considered a network of entities that provide a product or service to a consumer. In today’s global economy, supply chains rely on partners around the world to supply materials, components, products, human resources, technology, or services to satisfy customer demand. All the activities in the supply chain create jobs and drive the economy.

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The health care system itself is a complex supply chain. For example, every day, hospitals monitor new COVID-19 cases and project when demand for their ICUs may exceed capacity. In addition to providing needed medical supplies and equipment, managing patient flow, ICU bed capacity and proper staffing becomes challenging if the number of patients grows exponentially as the virus spreads.

The health care supply chain can become overloaded with patients, and potentially collapse in two ways. One way is if there are too many patients in a short period, such that there are not enough supplies and capacities (space, providers, etc.) to care for people on time. Secondly, the exhaustion or illness of doctors and nurses due to their long hours of service and lack of protective gear can further reduce the “supply” side of the health system. Without properly managing the “demand” side — patients — the health care system eventually will fail.

That’s where resilience comes in. Resilience is the ability to recover from shocks, such as natural disasters, conflicts, pandemics and cyberattacks. In 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, challenging the ability of the supply chain to support humanitarian operations in the area. Damage from the storm also shut down significant pharmaceutical production lines for IV bags and medications, causing shortages in U.S. hospitals months after the storm.

To make a supply chain more resilient, we need redundancy and flexibility in the supply chain design. One approach is to diversify sourcing, so the materials or services are not limited to one provider or providers from a single geographic region; another option is to have alternative materials/services that satisfy the same needs. Flexibility is the ability to rapidly modify the service and products to fill gaps in the supply chain. For example, to respond to COVID-19, brewing companies shifted their production lines from spirits to hand sanitizers, and automakers like Tesla, GM and Ford adapted auto parts to make ventilators and mask supplies.

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My research uses system modeling and decision-making tools for complex system operation design, monitoring, evaluation, and risk mitigation. I’m particularly interested in understanding how a system can adapt at the operational level or in its design to respond to unexpected events. The methods we use include simulation, statistical analysis, machine learning, and optimization. We study different scenarios to understand how systems respond to uncertainties and disruptions and to develop alternate operational and design strategies.

For example, we are working with a hospital to predict what resources a patient will require upon entering the hospital based on the patient’s medical records; this will help locate patients with similar needs in close proximity as a cluster to optimize care delivery. The ability to create those clusters dynamically will help the hospital reallocate resources and reconfigure space to handle an influx of patients for seasonal flu or for more extreme situations like COVID-19.

My research team also collaborates with NGOs and has developed a supply chain management system for emergency response called E+TRA (Electronic TRAnsparency & tracking). This system is designed to support the humanitarian team to set up an aid operation at a disaster zone, where the normal supply chains of essentials (e.g., food, drinking water, medicine, shelter, and hygiene kits) have been disrupted and the infrastructure is suboptimal (with unstable power and internet connectivity).

We also developed a solution for a medical supply chain system in Uganda to improve maternal and child health (E+TRA Health). This effort, supported by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges grant, uses patient medical data to predict the demands for laboratory supplies and medications to drive supply chain decisions for district hospitals in Uganda. Platforms like E+TRA and E+TRA Health, that can provide real-time data streams, are essential to shorten the response and recovery time in supply chains during and after stocks.

Future supply chains need redundancy and flexibility at all levels to minimize vulnerable points. We should also consider having a workforce that is cross-trained so businesses can respond more resiliently to shocks to minimize economic impacts. Consumers are part of the supply chain; healthy supply chains need resilience from both the demand and supply sides. As COVID-19 has shown us, how to manage demands is as important as how to manage supplies.

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Yuehwern Yih, Ph.D.

Academic Director of LASER PULSE (Long-term Assistance and Services for Research, Partners for University-Led Solutions Engine) Consortium

Associate Director of Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering

Professor of School of Industrial Engineering

College of Engineering, Purdue University

Related Links

Dr. Yih's Smart Operations & Systems (SOS) Lab 

Humanitarian relief efforts may provide insights into best practices for health care delivery amid COVID-19 pandemic

Cloud-based electronic system may help first responders better react to natural disasters

Purdue researchers receive ‘Grand Challenges Explorations’ grant for projects to help expecting mothers

Yih & Wang follow up Uganda healthcare project

Yih to present E+TRA HEALTH at ICT4D

Lab Projects Apply Engineering Lens To Solve Grand Challenges — Ultimately Saving Lives


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