As America’s leading research universities ramp up laboratory operations that were shut down by Covid-19 in March, they’re encountering a perfect storm of challenges in providing personal protective equipment (PPE) – surgical masks, cloth face coverings, gloves, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant materials.
Global PPE supply chains have been severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, producing long lead times and unreliable deliveries. At the same time, Covid-19 precautions are mandating the use of PPE in laboratories where it wasn’t required before, such as computer and electronics labs. And as researchers, staff, and graduate students slowly come back to the lab, predicting how many people will be at work on any given day creates yet another unknown.
At the Georgia Institute of Technology, supply chain and logistics experts have put their knowledge to work on the problem, using the kind of modeling and machine learning technologies that major retailers rely on to keep products on store shelves. In just one month, the research team has built an automated centralized system to replace traditional purchasing systems in which individual labs had to hunt for their own supplies.
By asking researchers to report details of the PPE they use each day, the labs will provide data the system needs to predict demand, allowing Georgia Tech to place large orders and stock a centralized warehouse that will help bridge the gap between supply chain hiccups. Based on usage data, the system will know when each lab’s stock of PPE needs to be resupplied from distribution centers located in 22 major laboratory buildings. The goal will be for each lab to have a robust three-day supply of PPE at all times.
“We need to make sure that every researcher, staff member, and graduate student is going to be protected properly,” said Benoit Montreuil, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISYE) and director of the Georgia Tech Supply Chain and Logistics Institute. “We are dealing with a very volatile situation for supply capacity, lead times, alternate sources, and reliability. With this system, we can ensure that the distribution of PPE throughout campus will be done in an efficient, seamless, responsive, and fair way.”
With $1 billion in sponsored activity during 2019, Georgia Tech has hundreds of research laboratories studying everything from viral antibodies and stem cells to robotics and electronic defense. In peak times, those researchers are expected to use 400,000 gloves a month and 20,000 surgical masks. With new sanitizing guidelines, they’re expected to use more than 4,000 gallons of hand sanitizer a month – but nobody really knows for sure, because this wasn’t widely required before.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, most labs were responsible for purchasing their own PPE. But with so many labs worldwide now hunting for materials in the same disrupted supply chains, that’s no longer possible.
“Georgia Tech can ensure better success in obtaining PPE by buying in very large quantities instead of asking individual lab managers to try to find stock on their own,” said Robert Butera, Georgia Tech’s Vice President for Research Development and Operations. “We can track down the best suppliers and create a buffer in the system. We’ll also be able to identify who are the most reliable suppliers.”
From individual laboratories, the system needs daily reports of how many gloves, masks, and other PPE are used. The system aggregates the numbers and uses that information to predict future usage, allowing Montreuil and his team to provide information to Georgia Tech’s Environmental Health and Safety (EHS). Baseline information obtained during Phase 1 of the research ramp-up will help plan for PPE needs as the number of researchers increases during Phase 2.
Individual labs won’t need to place orders unless than they encounter an unexpected change in demand.
“Rather than principal investigators requesting PPE for their labs and having to anticipate demand, they will log usage and the platform will do all the back-end work to make sure there’s a three-day supply in each lab and a two-week supply in the buildings,” Butera explained. “We are switching from making requests to logging usage in real time. People have to log their use of PPE on daily basis to make sure they are supplied.”
The new system will supply an estimated 95% of PPE needed on campus. Other items that are purchased less frequently, such as lab coats and shoe coverings, will continue to be ordered through traditional means. Those other supplies may be added to the system later.
“The idea is to focus right now on the key PPEs that are most critical from a supply perspective,” said Montreuil. “We will be revising consumption predictions on a daily basis and transferring this information into an overall demand forecast for PPEs.”
Georgia Tech’s research enterprise is ramping up in two phases over the summer. The first phase began June 18, and the second will start July 13. The new PPE supply system launches July 1.
To initiate the system, EHS has provided a stock of supplies to each lab, and that initial stock will be replenished based on the new system. In Phase 2 of the research ramp-up, the system will grow to include distribution centers in more than 50 campus buildings. At this point, Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) labs will receive their PPE through a separate supply system.
PPE distribution will begin at a campus warehouse managed by EHS. To meet the predicted demand, the warehouse will regularly distribute supplies to buildings, where managers will in turn supply individual labs. How labs receive their supplies will depend on building-level plans developed by managers, Butera said.
The centralized and automated system will for the first time allow administrators to know how much stock of each PPE item is available on campus. Ensuring adequate stock has become increasingly important with the protection needs of the Covid-19 environment.
While researchers who work with biological and chemical materials are accustomed to using and maintaining PPE stocks, keeping up with face masks and disinfectant stocks will be a new practice for others.
“In my lab in ISYE, nobody was using PPE before Covid-19 because we are only around workstations and computer displays,” said Montreuil. “Now, ISYE researchers won’t be able to get into the lab unless they have masks and we will provide hand sanitizer. We will have to get used to this change.”
Georgia Tech has one of the world’s best industrial engineering schools, and supply chain and logistics research is a key part of that. But even that expertise is challenged by the global logistics issues created by the pandemic, he added.
“The basics of inventory replenishment systems are well known,” Montreuil said. “But most of the time, the assumptions made in the models are very different from the environment we have now. With highly disrupted settings around the world, we find ourselves on a new frontier. It’s not a lab problem, a building problem, or a Georgia Tech problem. It’s a global challenge, and it affects everybody.”
Below are some frequently-asked questions about PPE supplies.
Where is the form to log use of PPE?
The form is available at this link.
Which PPE items are covered by the system?
Consumption of the following items should be reported: Pairs of nitrile gloves by size (S/M/L/XL), pairs of latex gloves by size (M/L), pairs of vinyl gloves, individual surgical masks, individual cloth masks, hand sanitizer by bottle, disinfecting spray by bottle, and disinfecting wipes by package.
How should consumption be reported?
Reporting usage by individual lab occupant would be most useful to the system because it will provide the most detailed data for predicting future use. But if labs cannot report usage by individuals working in the lab, they should provide daily data on the entire lab.
When are labs expected to begin reporting their daily consumption of PPE?
The system is operational now, and labs will be expected to start using it July 1.
Will GTRI labs obtain their PPE through this system?
No, GTRI has a separate system for providing PPE.
How will PPE supplies be restocked from buildings to individual laboratories?
Building managers will receive supplies from EHS and will be responsible for determining how labs will receive replenishment.
What should labs do with empty hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray bottles?
Empty hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray bottles should be returned to building managers for refill from bulk supplies. There is a shortage of bottles and reuse will help prevent shortages.
What is the lead time for PPE materials ordered from suppliers?
That varies according to the item. The median lead time for nitrile gloves has ranged from 11 to 53 days depending on glove size, with shortest for various sizes ranging between 7 and 11 days while the longest ranged between 11 and 130 days, depicting a high volatility. Supply chain challenges for hand sanitizer led Georgia Tech to work with non-traditional suppliers to create an alternative supply chain based on ethanol rather than isopropyl alcohol.
If labs will be provided with a robust three-day stock, how much will be at building depots?
Buildings should have a robust two-week supply of critical PPE items. The adjective robust is important as the aim is not to keep a stock covering an average three-day demand in labs, and an average two-week demand in buildings, but rather enough to cover demand considering consumption and supply stochasticity with degree of confidence. The three-day and two-weeks targets will be dynamically adjusted according to learning of the overall demand and supply chain dynamics.
Where can I get more information about accessing the consumption reporting system?
Please visit https://ehs.gatech.edu/covid-19/isye.
What if labs need certain supplies immediately?
An urgent request can be made using the urgent request form. At this point, ISYE is monitoring the requests and will notify the building manager. In the near future, requests will go directly to the building manager (or other point of contact).
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