The ability to repurpose manufacturing lines quickly, to deliver vital medical products, could be critical in protecting Europe against the next pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed severe shortcomings in the manufacture and supply of critical items such as protective wear for caregivers and mechanical ventilators for patients. Doctors sometimes had to improvise solutions, and struggled to meet patient needs as governments and industry scrambled to source raw materials and increase production. “We all saw the results of this,” says RESERVIST project member Frederik Goethals from Centexbel in Belgium. “It’s clear that we need to find solutions, to make sure that we aren’t faced with the same situation again when the next pandemic occurs.”
Switching production in crisis situations
The RESERVIST project sought to trial the concept of having manufacturing cells on standby, ready to seamlessly switch production in crisis situations. “We were inspired in part by the humanitarian world,” explains project coordinator Guy Buyle, also from Centexbel. “These organisations are able to scale up quickly and address issues such as shelter, water & sanitation and food in moments of crisis. They have these cells on standby, with the necessary capacity and with the skills they need.” To apply this concept to medical preparedness, the project team built up teams of relevant European industrial partners. These partners were able to work together and quickly switch their manufacturing focus, to develop items notably lacking when the COVID-19 epidemic struck. One network for example focused on producing critical protective gear such as face masks and gowns, from manufacturing the fabric needed through to assembly. Another cell focused on mechanical ventilator production, and included an LED manufacturer with the necessary manufacturing capabilities. Another cell pulled together the manufacturing capabilities needed to produce mobile equipment to disinfect rooms and surfaces more easily and efficiently (less spill of disinfection liquid).
Protective equipment delivery within days
The RESERVIST project was able to demonstrate the ability of these cells to deliver requested healthcare products within a couple of days. Manufacturing pilot runs were organised, to see if products could be assembled and supplied within the target time of 48 hours. “The idea was that production can be done on existing manufacturing lines, requiring only quick adaptations,” adds Goethals. One partner in the project requested products for makeshift hospitals based on a simulation of a realistic scenario – a civil war in an African country. The relevant cells were triggered, production switched and protective equipment delivered in a few days. “For this purpose, we were able to develop a platform to coordinate everything,” remarks Goethals. “From here, users can order products, trigger the cells and communicate.”
Capacity building over the long term
Both Goethals and Buyle agree that the priority now should be on ensuring that these cells are sustainable, and that they continue to be fit for purpose. For this, further financial support will be needed to continuously train personnel and ensure that production lines can always be adapted and the network remains robust. Indeed, a key legacy of RESERVIST, says Goethals, should be a new mindset. Instead of focusing just on stockpiling products, emphasis should be placed on capacity building. This will be more practical, more cost-effective and more environment-friendly over the long term. “Items such as facemasks will expire,” he notes. “But if you ensure manufacturing capacity, then you don’t need to maintain huge stockpiles that once past expiration you likely have to destroy unused.”