Penn State Smeal's supply chain experts support COVID-19 response initiatives

May 08, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The COVID-19 pandemic has shined the national spotlight on something most people don’t understand very well, if at all — supply chain management.

“If you can’t get what you need or want, you might have a supply chain problem,” said Steve Tracey, executive director of the nationally respected Center for Supply Chain Research at the Penn State Smeal College of Business. “Viewed through that lens, the current pandemic has created one of the biggest supply chain crises in decades.”

Masks, gowns, face shields, ventilators, test kits and, yes, even toilet paper — all have been in short supply for months.

But while the shortage of select consumer goods has mainly been an inconvenience for most Americans, the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies is a much more serious problem for hospital staff and patients alike.  

Penn State joins the fight

To help develop rapidly scalable solutions for the many issues created by COVID-19, Penn State launched the Manufacturing and Sterilization for COVID-19 (MASC) Initiative in March. The initiative began with a handful of people and has since blossomed into a 350-person collective of Penn State brain power from across multiple colleges and campuses.

The Center for Supply Chain Research’s involvement started with a phone call.

“In early March, Sue Purdum, a fellow professor in the department of Supply Chain and Information Systems, got a call from one of our industry partners, the senior vice president of supply chain at The Hershey Company,” Tracey said. “He knew that Penn State Health was having challenges with its supply chain and wanted to know if we could help. Within hours, Sue and I and a few other colleagues were on a phone call learning about the supply chain issues they were having.”

Flash forward to today and the Center for Supply Chain Research now has 11 faculty members working on the greater MASC team, plus staff from other departments at Smeal. In addition to providing guidance to healthcare providers and industry, they have used their knowledge and expertise to find solutions to specific supply chain issues and help organizations in need like Penn State Health.  

“Our faculty members have been involved in everything from finding raw materials for manufacturing PPE to offering creative solutions on how to model the situation and simulate solutions,” Tracey explained. “Everything a supply chain professional does.”  

Take protective face masks. After a 3D-printed prototype was created for Penn State Health by a cross-functional team from the university’s College of Engineering and Advanced Research Labs, the mask still needed filtration material within the shell in order to work.

“Scaling up the printing of the mask was relatively easy, but filtration material is scarce right now,” Tracey said. “Sue used her Department of Defense contacts to locate a company that had a non-woven textile that met the specifications for filtering air particles. The company wasn’t using the material because it couldn’t be run on high-speed machines, but that wasn’t an issue for us. The company donated it to us and next thing you know it’s on its way to Hershey Medical Center to be incorporated into the prototypes.”

Purdum shared another “connect the dots” example.

“In addition to masks, we were worried about the supply of protective gowns for hospital employees,” she said. “We managed to get material donated from a company in the Poconos, but then we needed to figure out how to produce the gowns when most sewing manufacturers in Pennsylvania were closed.”

Purdum found costume designer Charlene Gross in the Penn State School of Theatre. Together with a graduate student, Gross created a digital pattern for a gown. Still needing sewers, Purdum turned to Penn State Athletics, specifically the staff members who sew the football jerseys. But heavy-duty jerseys are nothing like more delicate protective gowns. In the end, the material went to a Pennsylvania nursing home and is now being sewn into protective gowns by the costume designers at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster.

“I teach about global sourcing and global dependencies, but even I didn’t realize how interdependent and delicate the healthcare supply chain is,” said Purdum, whose father and two brothers are physicians. “The whole world is facing the same issues right now, and there will be a lot of after-action learning we’ll have to do when this is over. This pandemic has really illustrated the importance of supply chain.

“I’m not a healthcare professional,” she added, “but this is a way I can commit to the fight. It makes me feel good to contribute to a profession to which my family is so devoted.”

Smeal joins national coalition

Smeal’s Center for Supply Chain Research and the department of Supply Chain and Information Systems faculty members are also part of the national COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition. This collaborative group is saving lives by providing real-time learning, openly sharing plans, identifying best practices, and distributing capabilities in an open-source manner.

Mere weeks ago, the coalition had 12 members. Today there are more than 150 members that range from well-known technology companies and nonprofit organizations to academic institutions and startup firms.

“The coalition chair, Taylor Wilkinson, is a supply chain professional like me,” Tracey said. “He asked if Penn State would be willing to jump in to help. We said yes, and it has been very beneficial so far.

“MASC and the coalition are cross-sharing information and we have been able to make useful connections between the coalition and Penn State Health,” he continued. “It’s enabled people to find and access valuable information much more quickly than they otherwise would have been able to.”

Between MASC and the coalition, Tracey and his colleagues are putting in multiple hours every day on phone calls, emails and virtual meetings, including thrice weekly calls with the coalition and a daily call with Penn State Health that Tracey takes while eating lunch at a table in his basement.

That’s not to say that Tracey is content to sit on calls. When the opportunity presents itself, he’s jumped into the trenches to help.

He recently took a prototype protective gown to Penn State’s meat lab to have it run through the lab’s nitrogen flush packaging machine to test whether it would work as a potential packaging solution before sterilization. Professor Ed Mills in Food Science was there to make it all happen.

“Heck, I didn’t even know we had a meat lab two weeks ago,” Tracey said with a laugh.

The fight has just begun

While there is still a sense or urgency around the COVID-19 pandemic, the next stages of the fight are coming. According to Tracey, supply chain demands and responses will need to continue adapting. 

“In the initial ‘surge phase,’ problems arise and are reactively responded to — not always successfully – and temporary solutions are put in place,” he said. “The next phase after that will involve preparing for resurgence and community support.”

Various states have already begun relaxing restrictions put in place over the past two months. Tracey says it’s critical that the healthcare community, in conjunction with all levels of government, conduct after-action analysis, identify lessons learned, begin planning for resurgence and conduct future pandemic planning.     

“Innovations that evolved in the surge phase need to be cataloged, documented, evaluated and pursued … with even greater urgency and speed than in the surge phase,” he says. “Simultaneously, healthcare institutions and government agencies need to stockpile resources for the resurgence phase and make innovations and execution strategies more robust and resilient to supply-and-demand shocks, both of which would be expected.”

Additional phases will follow that will involve planning for the next pandemic and a collective commitment to avoiding decisions of the past that had dire consequences.

The payoff of all the work that has been done to date and all the work that still lies ahead is worth it, Tracey said.   

“The supply chain challenge and the stakes for hospitals and the community in this pandemic are huge — it’s like the toilet paper shortage but on steroids,” he said. “We’re talking about the safety of our healthcare workers, who need to be properly protected when they go into work every day. If we do this right, most people won’t get sick and a lot of people won’t die.”

"We Are" stories

The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment — and we want to hear your “We Are” stories.

Visit news.psu.edu/WeAre to share how you or other Penn Staters are supporting each other to overcome the collective challenges presented by novel coronavirus. We are!

  • A photo of Sue Purdum

    Senior Instructor in Supply Chain and Information Systems Sue Purdum, whose father and two brothers are physicians, said "I’m not a healthcare professional but this is a way I can commit to the fight. It makes me feel good to contribute to a profession to which my family is so devoted.”

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    IMAGE: Smeal College of Business

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Last Updated May 11, 2020