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Pandemic adaptive supply chains need a future-proof approach

Pandemic adaptive supply chains need a future-proof approach

EXPERT VOICES

By Howard D. Grimes, UTSA; Thomas R. Kurfess, Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Gabriela F. Ciocarlie, Stanford Research Institute International; Dongyan Xu, Purdue University; and Lisa Strama, National Center for Manufacturing Sciences


JUNE 12, 2020 — COVID-19 vividly underscores the vulnerability of global manufacturing operations and supply chains. The disruption in our supply chains will hamper manufacturing for months and perhaps years. As we reopen and rebuild our economy, we must focus on sustainable manufacturing operations that are pandemic adaptive, resilient and secure.

Strengthening and securing manufacturing must be a top priority for our nation. While the U.S. has lost its leadership position in critical sectors, we have not lost our ability to innovate. We now face a tremendous opportunity for pervasive strategic overmatch via technology innovation inserted into our manufacturers. Our supply chains need to be PURE:

  • Pandemic adaptive, including operational modes that accommodate pervasive physical (social) distancing and remote work;
  • Usable and accessible to everyone (g., soldiers, factory workforce, engineers);
  • Resilient, agile and able to withstand physical-world challenges, such as pandemics, electrical grid failures and cyberattacks; and
  • Economical so resiliency and security are maintained at all levels of the supply chain, including small- and medium-size manufacturers.

Emphasizing this, on April 16, 2020, G7 leaders agreed to coordinate the reopening of their economies after the coronavirus pandemic and to ensure “trusted supply chains.” It is apparent that many nations will consider how to ensure trust in supply chains and how they can achieve self-sufficiency in times of peril.

The first step is to undertake a nationwide effort to strengthen and diversify our supply chains and manufacturing operations. We must diversify and digitally integrate supply chains to make them more robust, resilient and responsive. As summarized in Foreign Policy, a new report by Dun & Bradstreet calculates that 51,000 companies around the world have one or more direct suppliers in Wuhan and at least 5 million companies around the world have one or more tier-two suppliers in the Wuhan region.

A limited number of primary suppliers cannot be relied upon. Rather, multiple trusted suppliers, dispersed globally, including the U.S., should be cultivated to respond to emerging needs. In the digital age our supply chains and their operations need to embrace the digital thread (i.e., a communication framework that connects traditionally siloed elements in manufacturing processes and provides an integrated view of one asset throughout the manufacturing lifecycle). Thus, we create innovation pipelines that can be accelerated, decelerated or repurposed quickly in response to national priorities. The end result is a flexible factory with built-in innovation serving to propel U.S. manufacturers to global leadership.

We recommend implementing stockpile and inventory diversity in new ways and for an orchestrated effort to develop guidelines that (a) recognize necessary raw materials, (b) ascertain essential designs, templates and data needed, (c) identify the critical elements of physical infrastructure that are needed and (d) aggregate the technical expertise and manufacturing capabilities that can be deployed in an emergency. This nationwide effort should also develop a plan for mobilizing these different stockpiles, inventories and the logistics associated with quickly ramping up production under emergency conditions. It must also consider the elements needed, the quantities and the modes of secure storage.

Identify, stockpile and secure critical raw materials in a nationally orchestrated infrastructure, including private companies. It is economically and technologically disadvantageous to stockpile finished products, especially if unused. Rather, we should establish the priorities necessary to respond to disruptions such as those in health, finance, trade and cyber domains. This effort should also provide recommendations to the legislative and executive branches of the federal government for critical raw materials and infrastructures.

Identify and digitally inventory designs, data and templates needed for rapid scale-up. Digital designs that electronically represent a complete product can be updated continually to incorporate new innovations so that state-of-the-art systems and capabilities are immediately deployable. These designs, data and templates will need to be cybersecure to protect U.S. intellectual property.

Identify the critical facilities and machines needed for rapid deployment, and inventory these in a federal digital infrastructure capable of rapidly and securely connecting OEMs and suppliers. A federated approach should produce recommendations on the type and number of critical facilities and machines that are needed to quickly ramp up highly automated production. Inventorying this infrastructure ensures that we know where the necessary assets are located and how we can aggregate them upon need for maximum efficiency.

Identify the technical expertise and manufacturing capabilities needed to rapidly execute the scale-up of production operations needed for critical manufactured goods. These assets are inventoried in the same centralized digital infrastructure along with facilities and machines, and thus, these assets can be aggregated and mobilized for maximum efficiency. In essence, we need to create flexible factories coupled with nationally inventoried raw materials, digital designs, infrastructure and expertise that can be rapidly deployed and activated on demand.

Build a digitally integrated and secure manufacturing ecosystem. Companies are scrambling to produce more respirators, and the current pandemic highlights the need for a digitally integrated manufacturing ecosystem. Automotive companies have made valiant efforts to change their production lines from cars to respirators. This is not unlike efforts during World War II, when car factories churned out bombers for the war effort. However, these factories must be able to pivot their operations in a few days or weeks at most, rather than months or years.

There are three critical factors needed to accelerate respirator production. First, the components that are needed must be obtained from the supply chain. That supply chain must be able to take the digital designs of the various components and scale up production to meet the demand.

Second, a location must be ready to receive components, assemble them and test and validate the final product. Finally, and perhaps most overlooked, there must be a highly capable workforce that can be trained to assemble respirators rather than automobiles. Only with a digitally integrated supply chain, an assemble/validation facility and a well-trained flexible workforce are we able to produce critical products like respirators. When a respirator ships, it would have a “digital passport” certifying that every component was made to specification and that the assemble system performed to all requisite standards. We now have a supply chain and manufacturing process that is “rooted in trust.”

Expounding on this example, it is not necessary to have a large stockpile of respirators stored in warehouses, ready for distribution. Storage of complex products like respirators is costly; respirators degrade over time and become outdated when brought into service. Rather, manufacturers must rapidly manufacture new respirators when needed. For those components that can be readily made, one might simply stockpile the tooling to make the components. For example, molds for polymer parts could be stockpiled rather than the parts. When the parts are needed, the molds could be rapidly brought into service. Taking this concept one step further, the digital designs of the molds could be digitally stockpiled, such that the molds can be rapidly manufactured via either traditional processes or next-generation technologies, such as 3D printing (additive manufacturing). Ultimately, parts that lend themselves to digital inventorying will be stored in a “cyber warehouse,” and those that are not easily and rapidly manufactured will still be stockpiled. Examples of parts that could be digitally inventoried are the specialized connectors used in a respirator, whereas components such as motors might be physically stockpiled. Over time, as manufacturing technology advances, even more complex components, such as motors or elements of the motors, might be digitally inventoried.

Another example of the use of a digital manufacturing ecosystem is the production of a single set of complex components, such as turbine blades. Such blades are used for a variety of products, including aircraft, helicopters, windmills and even gas turbine engines used on M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks. Situations can arise where significant quantities of these blades are required. For example, deployment of any of these systems in a desert environment can significantly accelerate turbine blade wear, due to abrasive sand. One solution to producing such blades in a rapid fashion is to 3D-print them. While 3D printing is a relatively new technology, results in printing turbine components are very promising. To print such blades, a file containing the print information must be securely transmitted to the manufacturing facility. During manufacturing, information related to that specific part’s fabrication can be stored in the part’s own digital passport. Such a digital passport will travel with the part in a secure manner so that when the turbine blade arrives at its destination the blade is fully certified and the process used to manufacture it completely documented. Hence, when the technician installs the blade in the aircraft’s jet engine, that blade is known to be genuine (not counterfeit), manufactured to specifications, and has not been tampered with. Again, the entire process becomes rooted in trust.

Pursue manufacturing innovation with security guarantees. To enable innovation and competitiveness in advanced manufacturing, and to protect U.S. innovations and assets, we must secure our supply chains and manufacturing operations. A “pandemic adaptive manufacturing architecture” (PAM architecture) is necessary to support integrated orchestration of individual manufacturing automation systems so that local PURE manufacturing standards are practiced. Parts must be genuine and certified to precise specifications. Equally critical is protecting manufacturing facilities from cyberattacks that could hamper our manufacturing capabilities. Any of these scenarios could prove disastrous in either harming our people or curbing the ability to respond to an emergency. Furthermore, such a secure digital manufacturing infrastructure also helps us protect our designs and innovations.

This PAM architecture must introduce sound cryptographic techniques to transform the physical identities of parts and products into robust digital credentials, or digital passports. A cyber-physical ledger infrastructure for the entire supply chain can be developed to record operations on each artifact and maintain its digital passport. With the advent of digital, machine and expertise inventories, we can create, upgrade and sustain flexible factory manufacturing operations to efficiently, effectively and rapidly scale-up production. Thus, an innovative PAM digital architecture enables pandemic adaptive, resilient and trusted supply chains. These concepts are applicable to turbine blades, respirators and other manufacturing sectors (e.g., bio pharma and vaccine production). It is important that the vaccines developed by our nation’s researchers can be scaled up to hundreds of millions and even billions of people. Each vaccine must be genuine, produced to the exact formula and not tampered with. Vaccine producing facilities will benefit from a well-conceived digital architecture to become secure and significantly more efficient, flexible and resilient.

Creating and maintaining physical, digital and expertise stockpiles enables distributed modular manufacturing and quick pivots on the factory floor in response to pandemics. Instantiations of these processes can be performed in integrated facilities that currently exist in universities, Department of Energy National Laboratories and private companies. Performing these instantiations allows the analysis of the trade-offs between the granularity for stockpiling and the production cycle time. Critically, by inventorying the basic building blocks for physical and digital elements, we construct the basis for a root of trust in both the physical and cyber worlds. Thinking further past this single instantiation model, this integrated-facility approach creates a pathway to spin up new products and capabilities. The digital monitoring of the supply chain provides the ability to actually reprogram everything and adapt the granularity to the current state of the entire supply chain network—and this reprogramming can be done in hours. We are “automating the automation.”

The PAM architecture will also be intelligent in self-monitoring and learning about past and ongoing operations, supplies and demands; predicting and raising alarms about “the unexpected” (e.g., supply shortage, quality-degradation or manipulation); and proactively proposing supply chain repurposing/rerouting plans that minimize cyber, physical, economical risks and disruptions.

These innovations require a coordinated approach that includes universities, DOE National Laboratories, private companies, entities like the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, and existing Manufacturing Innovation Institutes. A federally orchestrated response is needed immediately to strengthen U.S. manufacturers, protect vital assets and propel U.S. manufacturers to sustained competitiveness. As Bob Dylan prophetically stated in “The Times They Are A-Changing”: “For he that gets hurt, will be he who has stalled.”

Let’s not stall; let’s take the initiative.


Howard Grimes is chief executive officer of the Cybersecurity Manufacturing Innovation Institute at UTSA as well as the university’s associate vice president and associate vice provost for institutional initiatives.


Editor's note: This article has also been featured on SME, the nonprofit association of professionals, educators and students committed to promoting and supporting the manufacturing industry.



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