COVID-19 & the Case for Massive Small Manufacturing

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 13 July 2020

Something unusual is happening to the way the world makes things. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of individuals, communities, small businesses and major manufacturers are becoming active members of the relief movement to help ease the global shortage of essential medical supplies.

As the crisis develops, members of the Shuttleworth community are pooling their resources together to form coherent responses to the worldwide shortage of Personal Protective Equipment. We were unsurprised, as, for many, it is a natural extension of their work in open hardware and a desire to do the right thing. For example, Tarek Loubani is 3D-printing face shields for medical workers in Canada, while Luka Mustafa is working with Slovenian companies and Fab Labs to design and produce a variety of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks and visors.

What has been revelatory is the speed and breadth that many other groups are springing up as part of the global collaborative effort, openly sharing knowledge and designs and creating in schools and community labs. Some are part of coordinated action; others are going it alone by turning garden sheds or garages into 3D-printing workshops.

Open technologies are playing a significant role, but there are also commendable efforts in the proprietary commercial industry. Several high profile companies are working under government request in a manner not seen since the Second World War. Factories have refitted and retooled to switch production from cars, clothing and gin to providing their local communities with ventilators, PPE and hand sanitiser.

This global explosion and mobilisation of innovation, idea-sharing, and hyper-local manufacturing is happening on a vast scale, at speed. Governments are turning to multiple suppliers because the single-source mass manufacturers they relied on previously cannot meet demand. People are making what is needed, where it’s needed, when it’s needed.

A familiar story

It is an environment instantly recognisable to Andrew Lamb. His fellowship idea of Massive Small Manufacturing is inspired by an entire career working in disaster relief and sheer frustration at the aid sector’s struggles to move vital medical gear where it is required. Essential supplies are made in one continent, stored in another, and take weeks to arrive at their destination - if at all - with an exponential cost to human health and life.

The primary goal of Massive Small Manufacturing is to improve the fluidity of disaster relief supply chains by moving away from mass production and towards production by the masses. Andrew is introducing a more professionalised, coordinated approach to the open hardware movement and the emerging technologies driving it. He is using open source designs, systems and contracts to decentralise and distribute manufacturing and provide a myriad of meaningful impacts.

Instead of buying 200,000 units from a single source supplier based thousands of miles away, why not buy 20,000 each from smaller, more localised factories or individuals? Small factories and individuals make what is needed on-demand, while aid agencies reduce or eliminate budget-devouring shipping costs. This allows damaged communities the opportunity to do valuable work, get paid, and start to repair their local economies.

Returning to the present, our current experience of medical equipment shortages is typical - perhaps even tame - compared to those waiting desperately for help in war-torn, disaster-hit or economically-ravaged parts of the world. We are currently living through Andrew’s lens, as citizens, communities and businesses respond with Massive Small Manufacturing. But why is it happening now?

The little bug in the big machine

We live in a paradigm of mass production and centralised manufacturing which has been the norm since the days of Henry Ford. In the decades since, it has been increasingly tightened, stretched and optimised for maximum efficiency at the lowest possible cost. It makes sense for many industries. A need for economies of scale, quality control, and quality assurance mean the Just-in-Time system is perfect for car production or the manufacturing of complex gadgets. It enables more people to afford access to life-improving technology.

But today, this system finds favour with all areas of manufacturing. We have a global economic system of production where almost everything - from plastic toys and soap bars to medical equipment and drugs - is created in low-wage countries who export to the rest of the world. It is mass production to the extreme, with a blinkered focus on reducing costs and a disregard for supplier diversity. The supply chain may be super-efficient, but there is only so far you can stretch something before it begins to degrade. Up until now, it’s been globalised production with barely any alternative. Current events reveal this to be hugely problematic.

Look beyond the upsetting health impacts of the pandemic and it’s clear people are not alone in facing contagion: COVID-19 is also infecting the global production line. Huge spikes in demand are completely out of sync with supply, while swathes of the manufacturing labour force stay at home in lockdown. Citizens everywhere are finding supermarket shelves stocked to capacity one day and bare the next. A shortage of medical safety equipment has pushed nations, states and companies into direct competition and ugly bidding wars, with fatally long wait times for the winners, let alone the losers. Front-facing key workers and medical staff pay the ultimate price.

Many people - particularly in the West - see this as an unprecedented shock to a system that has, historically, served us highly efficiently. It is unsettling to watch on as the distribution lines we rely on for next day deliveries and bathroom basics unravel at the seams.

But should we really be surprised? The average person knows little about the supply chain. Few of us question the reality of the end-to-end traceability of goods known as a “black hole of insight.” Even fewer knew it was a thing. Today, the complexities and opaqueness of the entire industry are so vast that few factory managers have any idea where their raw materials and parts come from, or how they got there.

A crisis of confidence

The pandemic has wholly exposed the supply chain’s systemic lack of resilience. Worried voices emanate loudly from the logistics industry about its lack of foresight around over-optimisation, complex interdependence and reliance on cheap manufacturing from China.

We can expect numerous aftershocks - or ‘bullwhip’ effects in the future, as suppliers and manufacturers become accidental adversaries and feed into each other’s negative feedback loops. Estimates range but many experts believe it will take a minimum of six months to recover once the pandemic is over. Even the most positive commentators suggest that “a reversal of Just-in-Time production and global sourcing may be beneficial.”

Logistics experts and manufacturers are quickly identifying the problems and considering potential solutions in pursuit of supply chain sustainability and resilience. A few key trends are emerging.

Decentralising capacity

A demand to move from global to local production has been common in recent years, particularly in countries experiencing political shifts towards protectionism. Now, it is supply chain expertise pivoting from their global positions to make the same, urgent call for production to ‘come home.’

This poses an important question for policymakers, and it’s the very same question Andrew is asking of aid agencies. Should certain products such as PPE be manufactured in the country, region or city they are needed? The pandemic suggests it should be an option. While not all open hardware, retooling, or local manufacturing efforts have worked successfully during the crisis, it is clear that the capability to do more is there.

Once you have a system in place that creates for emergencies, it’s possible to expand further into different fields. We have the technology - we don’t need to rely on one or two countries or companies to make our soap, buckets or rubber ducks.

Massive Small Manufacturing is a concept born from a desire to fix market failure in humanitarian relief procurement and logistics. But its broader potential to reshape the future is being seen right now: its saving jobs and creating incomes, reducing environmental impacts of transportation, and empowering communities to react to local issues. And it’s happening in schools, small factories, homes and maker spaces everywhere.

Supplier diversity and shortening the supply chain

With no attention paid to increasing supplier diversity over the recent decades, the entire manufacturing industry looked to reduce costs at the expense of everything else. This trend will and must change - the outbreak is a wake-up call and a loud alarm to shorten supply chains.

As Chinese factories closed their doors, global manufacturers became stricken with no flexibility in their supplier base. Current discussions in the supply chain industry revolve around diversifying to a number of other manufacturing hubs, such as Mexico, India and Vietnam.

However, this only seems to treat the symptom rather than the underlying condition. Distance will still be a factor, and places where supply chains are at their worst are unlikely to enjoy positive impacts. Andrew’s idea runs deeper and goes further. He sees a real opportunity for more widespread diversity in the manufacturing process across the board to create a genuine alternative to globalised manufacturing. A future where people move from consumer to creator, and in doing so, eliminating as much of the supply chain as possible.

Take the food system as an example. You can buy raw ingredients and make a burger yourself or you can use one ready-made in a packet. Both can be eaten at home. If time is an issue, you might walk to your local fast food joint. If you’re feeling flush, you will be willing to pay way over the odds at the high-end restaurant of your choice.

Now translate these options into Andrew’s vision for the diversification of manufacturing. In the future, you could buy raw materials locally and make essential things at home on your 3D-printer - a common household item as ubiquitous as a fridge. If equipment is an issue you can create something at a council-funded or community-owned local maker space. If the item is beyond your capabilities, you would find someone local to build it through the Internet of Production, Andrew’s idea to build a catalogue of designs and map local manufacturing capacity and skills. Several years ago, this vision could be seen by many as pie in the sky. Today, while observing people and communities respond to PPE shortage, it seems a lot closer in view.

Transparency and digitalisation

There are loud discussions in production and procurement circles around much of the industry’s lack of transparency. Some manufacturers and suppliers are happy to go unnoticed - typically where ethical issues are ignored - but for respectable companies, it is critical to understand the full extent of the supply chain.

COVID-19 has shown good businesses failing and leaving themselves open to litigation because they are unaware of their partner’s vulnerabilities. Greater transparency is required to map suppliers, improve visibility and build new supplier relationships. It will be a shift towards a higher degree of openness.

Technology will play a critical role. For an industry that powers global GDP, it is surprising that much of its work is still done on paper, from receiving essential deliveries to signing off batches and contracts. HFS Research highlights the Blockchain as tailor-made for the digitalisation of the industry to enable greater demonstration of regulatory compliance and sustainability. It could also be a suitable medium for contracts.

As part of his Massive Small Manufacturing project, Andrew is figuring out an open contract system enabling the humanitarian sector to work with multiple suppliers. This will allow agencies to order their usual six- or seven-figure batches of supplies but procure them from dozens - or hundreds - of small, local companies and factories, without the need to contract with them individually. It also covers them for legal jurisdiction issues, quality control, warranties and liabilities - everything the modern manufacturing system has to reflect.

If successful, this contract system has the potential to enter into new areas away from the aid sector and directly to the heart of production. Supermarkets could buy from thousands of local farmers and factories, as well as ordering from local maker spaces and entrepreneurs, without any of the bureaucracy. And as each contract goes down the chain, the stream of transparency flows down with it.

The future is now

Businesses, practices and entire industries will inevitably face significant change due to the effects of COVID-19. But perhaps this is already happening with manufacturing.

In the book Managing Humanitarian Innovation: The Cutting Edge of Aid by Eric James and Abi Taylor, the authors discuss a term called ‘massive small change.’ They describe it as discreet, seemingly unconnected, entirely random developments that come together to create a larger phenomenon, taking place in networks and affecting any number of fields. Is the large event we are experiencing the birth of Massive Small Manufacturing?

Changing systems is hard. It is close to impossible to achieve from the top down. But Andrew’s concept is spreading - quite organically - from the bottom up, as we have seen with the incredible response in open hardware and manufacturing base throughout this crisis. There is a wave of interest, knowledge sharing and new ideas spreading through the world alongside the virus that kickstarted it.

Massive Small Manufacturing is a big, bold vision of the future. It is complicated, and difficult, and encompasses an eye-wateringly vast breadth of work. But as the supply chain and manufacturing industries scrabble around to limit damage and poke around the edges at a system that doesn’t work, it might be time for change. Maybe the future is now…

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