‘Agile’ Manufacturing and Frugal Innovation: Resilience in Light of Supply Chain Disruptions

By Gurubaran Subramaniam and Calissa Man

2021 begins on a hopeful note as COVID-19 vaccine development, distribution and administration are well underway. However, equitable distribution and quick access on a global scale is unlikely, and the issues surrounding vaccine production and logistics resilience echo similar concerns with global supply chain disruptions during the pandemic.

Early on at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, global supply chains came under significant strain. Governments rapidly sought to mitigate this by facilitating the reshoring of production of essential goods or ramping up local production of those goods. States also began stockpiling critical supplies and materials; some even adopted aggressive tactics such as implementing export restrictions on therapeutics and medical equipment, and hijacking shipments at transit hubs. The scarcity of medical supplies and their concentration in the hands of a few countries also gave rise to new power dynamics, creating opportunities for ‘mask’ or ‘test-kit diplomacy’.

To mitigate supply chain disruptions, some governments and communities adopted innovative approaches. It is useful to examine these approaches and their enabling factors which can help ramp up quick production in times of crisis. An enabling environment could also better nurture a culture of innovation for longer-term strategic advantage.

‘Agile’ manufacturing, enabled by networks and adjacencies in capability and resources

Many non-medical companies turned to ‘agile’ manufacturing to mitigate supply chain disruptions. This refers to production lines being repurposed to mass-produce critical items.

The Taiwanese government issued a directive to ramp up the domestic production of masks, having sourced 90% of its supply of surgical masks from overseas at the start of 2020. Through a call for volunteers to its members, the Taiwan Machine Tool & Accessory Builders’ Association (TMBA) formed a national team in just five days. The team comprised almost 200 professionals from companies in the machinery sector, the machine tool industry, as well as industrial research institutes. It repurposed manufacturing machinery to create 60 production lines for surgical mask machines in 25 days, which contributed to increasing Taiwan’s domestic production of masks. The quick response was enabled by close networks of professionals with shared expertise, even across different industries. Some have attributed the success to the positive relationship between workers and government, notably the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Positioned in the press as a patriotic endeavour, rival firms were motivated to collaborate for the sake of public good. In Singapore, engineering firm Singapore Technologies (ST) Engineering and gaming company Razer, in collaboration with the Government, converted existing manufacturing lines to begin producing surgical masks domestically when a foreign supplier was unable to fulfil contractual obligations to supply the masks.

An operation of similar scale and speed was undertaken by luxury conglomerate LVMH. It repurposed its perfume and cosmetics factories to produce hand sanitiser in just 72 hours to meet the French government’s call to industry to help fill gaps of key medical supplies as France went into lockdown. LVMH donated 12 tonnes of hand sanitiser to the Assistance Publique — Hôpitaux de Paris (APHP) — the group of 39 public hospitals in Paris — in a week.

Where corporate and community capacities and capabilities were unable to fill shortages, a top-down approach was necessary. This was met, however, with uneven success. One reason for failure could be strict regulatory compliance requirements and the time taken to process tests and approvals. The UK, for instance, launched a ventilator challenge, calling on industry to produce 30,000 ventilators in two weeks. Despite the best efforts by manufacturers in adjacent industries, including Dyson, to design and build a viable prototype, the ventilator challenge failed to produce a device that could meet the clinical requirements for treating COVID-19 patients. Furthermore, regulatory approval for clinical use was contingent on not just the design of the product, but also the servicing and usage of the product, and after-treatment care.

These success stories show that it is relatively easier to pivot to manufacture simple products such as masks and hand sanitisers, but more challenging for complicated products with longer value chains which require deeper knowledge bases and are highly regulated. Therefore, Governments would have to consider which products might be more suitable for ‘agile’ manufacturing in their own contexts, considering overall cost-effectiveness and other limitations such as land requirements and manpower constraints. For complicated products, it would be useful for governments to build a deeper understanding of existing capabilities and how their ecosystems could be augmented with new plants or stockpiles, work more closely with industry in forward planning, and consider flexible approaches to regulation in times of crisis to mitigate shortages. It would also be worthwhile to explore the role educational and research institutes could play in such an effort.

Other ways to promote ‘agile’ manufacturing include the sharing of proprietary information. US company Medtronic shared the full design specifications, production manuals, and design documents for its Puritan Bennett (PB) 560 portable ventilator to allow other companies to manufacture it. However, it remains to be seen if other corporations will follow Medtronic’s example in sharing intellectual property in support of national imperatives, potentially losing out in the longer-term.

Frugal innovation as a strategic advantage amidst fiscal and resource constraints

Amid severe fiscal constraints, some countries have adopted frugal innovation to manage during the crisis.

India adopted several low-tech frugal solutions in the private and public sectors. The Aryan Paper Group created cheap, quick-assembly cardboard beds that cost as low as 900 rupees (S$16). A prototype was developed in a week, before its successful deployment in public hospitals nationwide. The Indian Navy also developed an air pod for the safe transportation of COVID-19 patients, which cost nearly 100 times less than imported pods. The state of Maharashtra stamped individuals who were given home quarantine orders with indelible ink normally used to mark voters in elections, so they would be noticeable to others if they left their homes during the quarantine period. The ‘Prana-vayu’, a portable closed-loop ventilator developed by an Indian university, IIT-Roorkee, cost 25,000 rupees (S$460) to manufacture, while the ‘Rudhaar’, a ventilator prototype developed by a first-year student at IIT Bombay, cost 10,000 rupees ($180). These were much more affordable compared to imported ventilators that cost US$40,000 or more each.

India’s spirit of frugal innovation is rooted in the culture of jugaad, a Hindi word that refers to an improvised fix or clever solution born in adversity — using whatever is available and doing more with limited resources through experimentation and improvisation. Jugaad has been credited as the foundation for the rise of India’s global industries of pharmaceuticals and technology. In both industries, Indian companies with far fewer resources than their foreign competitors came up with cheaper and more effective ways of doing things, which ended up being a competitive advantage. India’s successes with frugal innovation during the COVID-19 pandemic has also been attributed to its version of the ‘triple helix’ model of innovation, integrating efforts across universities, start-ups, and the government. This involves mapping relevant technologies developed by start-ups as well as crowdsourcing platforms to aggregate ideas and solutions from various domains of expertise. Acknowledging the need to better nurture innovation from a young age, the government has set up over 5,000 Atal Tinkering Laboratories in schools nation-wide to encourage children to tinker in electronics, robotics, AI and 3D printing.

Outside of the pandemic, better understanding frugal innovation is also key to avoid being blindsided by disruptive inventions across a myriad of sectors. The impact of cheap, low-tech offensive moves has been best exemplified in the security sector, having caught many countries by surprise in recent times. The still-effective ‘propaganda balloons’ flying between North and South Korea, and the use of ‘fire kites’ across the Gaza-Israel border are just some examples of cheap innovations with extremely costly impact. Low-tech weapons such as knives and moving vehicles have also been used by terrorists to wreak havoc in cities, catching authorities by surprise.

Against the backdrop of fiscal and resource constraints, frugal innovation capabilities could be a strategic asset for governments. Talent from countries with a strong ground-up culture for innovation could be more sought-after; systems that encourage such capabilities could benefit in the longer run as they capitalise on frugal innovation to tackle national challenges. Understanding the factors that underpin frugal innovation could also prevent countries from being blindsided by cheap, high-impact inventions.

Ground-up action to complement large-scale innovation and help build frugal innovation mindset

Hand-sewn face masks, non-contact thermometers and 3D printed face shields are among the supplies that were made by maker communities around the world. Online communities on Materialise, Facebook, Formlabs and Reddit generously shared open-source designs and expertise for free. Such online platforms provided open-source design templates, while makers could offer feedback and improvements for prototypes developed by others.

3D printing hobbyists even offered free 3D printing services for components such as oxygen valves through Formlabs and Google Sheets. These platforms and communities proved efficient at improving designs quickly. For instance, the design of the popular Prusa face shield, developed by Czech 3D printing company Prusa Research, was revised thrice, cutting its printing time in half. Almost 200,000 of these face shields were printed and donated to the medical community in the Czech Republic.

These success stories suggest that a community-centred innovation strategy could complement government investments in high-tech R&D. Especially as countries around the world operate in an increasingly tight fiscal environment, access to possible cheap, low-tech solutions that could deliver high impact could become increasingly important.

Community-centred innovation such as the maker community could also serve as new grounds for civic action and community cohesion. It could be worthwhile for governments to better support these groups to promote civic involvement, social cohesion and national identity building. Additionally, encouraging a do-it-yourself ethos, such as helping people embrace the use of accessible, low-tech tools and inexpensive materials, may help build a mindset and culture of frugal innovation.

Gurubaran Subramaniam is Senior Strategist at the Centre for Strategic Futures.

Calissa Man was Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic Futures.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.

Further Reading:

1. “3D Printing Community Responds to Covid-19 and Coronavirus Resources”, 3D Printing Industry, 29 April 2020.

2. “A Story of Bravery: How Taiwan ramped up surgical mask production output by 92 production lines in two months” Taiwan Trade Center, Vancouver, 31 March 2020.

3. “Against Coronavirus: A Bravery Story about a Taiwan National Machine Tool Team”, World of Industries, 23 April 2020.

4. “Atal Tinkering Lab”, India STEM Foundation, n.d.

5. “Commentary: COVID-19 is sparking a new wave of tech innovation in India”, Channel NewsAsia, 9 May 2020.

6. “Coronavirus: India’s race to build a low-cost ventilator to save Covid-19 patients” BBC News, 31 March 2020.

7. “Coronavirus outbreak: Maharashtra government starts stamping left hand of those in home quarantine”, The Indian Express, 17 March 2020.

8. “Coronavirus: Singapore boosting production of masks since Februrary”, The Straits Times, 7 May 2020.

9. “Covid-19 Can’t Stop Citizen Science”, Undark, 17 April 2020.

10. “Culture of ‘Bending Rules’ in India Challenges U.S. Drug Agency”, The Guardian, 31 January 2019

11. “Eight Projects from CG selected in NITI Aayog’s top 100 innovations”, Times of India, 4 July 2020.

12. “ExxonMobil Starts Making Hand Sanitizer, Following Liquor Companies”, npr.com, 24 April 2020.

13. “Factories that used to make perfume, T-shirts, and cars are now making supplies to fight the coronavirus”, vox.com, 6 April 2020.

14. “Hand Stamps, Bandannas and Sidewalk Chalk: India Looks to Low-Tech Coronavirus Solutions”, Wall Street Journal, 29 March 2020.

15. “IIT-Roorkee develops Prana-Vayu, a low-cost ventilator”, The Hindu, 3 April 2020.

16. “Inside the factory: how LVMH met France’s call for hand sanitiser in 72 hours”, Financial Times, 19 March 2020.

17. “Made-in-Singapore surgical masks given to frontline healthcare workers in fight against Covid-19: Chan Chun Sing, Today, 6 May 2020.

18. “Maker culture’s DIY spirit is helping us get through this pandemic”, Fast Company, 15 April 2020.

19. “Making Made Right: This Czech Company Guides Global 3D Printing Pandemic Response”, Forbes, 28 March 2020.

20. “Mumbai: Easy-to-assemble cardboard beds at quarantine hubs”, Times of India, 18 May 2020.

21. “Navy develops air evacuation pod for coronavirus patients”, Times of India, 14 April 2020.

22. “Q&A with Jaideep Prabhu, Professor of Marketing at Cambridge Judge Business School”, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 24 January 2017.

23. “Taiwan’s ‘hidden champions’ help coronavirus fightback”, Nikkei Asian Review, 24 April 2020.

24. “The inside story of the UK’s NHS coronavirus ventilator challenge”, The Guardian, 4 May 2020.

25. “US accused as ‘modern piracy’ after diversion of masks meant for Europe”, The Guardian, 4 April 2020.

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Welcome to CSF Singapore’s blog site, a space to share our shorter think-pieces and reflections. Visit our main website at www.csf.gov.sg

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