WPI Experts Help Massachusetts Manufacturing Network Prepare for Future Crises
Four WPI researchers are part of an industry-academic effort that will help a network of Massachusetts manufacturers collaborate, communicate, and pivot quickly to produce vital products during future crises such as pandemics.
Funded with a five-year $499,995 grant from the National Science Foundation, the project is analyzing the issues faced by manufacturers that offered to shift their production during the COVID-19 pandemic and developing tools and exercises to improve emergency manufacturing responses in the future.
“COVID-19 showed us how important it is to have nimble manufacturing systems that can quickly make life-saving products,” says Sara Saberi, a supply chain expert and assistant professor at The Business School who is a co-principal investigator on the project. “Now we need to learn more about how companies can pivot their operations to produce what is needed, what factors help companies to pivot, and what factors hinder companies.”
Known as the Rapid Execution for Scaling Production of Needed Designs network, or RESPOND, the project is bringing together small businesses, large corporations, universities, government agencies, and independent organizations in Massachusetts. Other WPI participants in the project include Joseph Sarkis, a professor in The Business School; Doug Petkie, professor and head of the Department of Physics; Greg Fischer, professor in the Department of Robotics Engineering; and Ellen Piccioli, director of manufacturing innovation. Principal investigator is Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
RESPOND will address a problem that emerged in Massachusetts early in the pandemic, when hospitals filled with patients and anecdotal reports of medical supply shortages emerged. At the time, WPI researchers helped by donating supplies to healthcare workers, using 3-D printers to make face shield components, and developing designs for low-cost ventilators.
To ramp up large-scale production of needed goods, state officials created the Massachusetts Emergency Response Team (MERT) in 2020 to work with the state’s manufacturing community. About 50 mostly small and mid-size companies in the state shifted their production to make gowns, swabs, sanitizer, masks, disinfectant, and ventilator parts. Many more businesses expressed interest in pivoting but did not do so for reasons such as insufficient capacity to produce goods on a large scale, lack of labor expertise in personal protective equipment (PPE) production, material shortages, and a lack of appropriate connections to suppliers.
“MERT helped Massachusetts manufacturers pivot to create more than 15 million PPE items in a relatively short time during the COVID-19 crisis,” says Piccioli, who was WPI’s representative on the MERT. “RESPOND will build upon the lessons learned from the MERT.”
MERT continues to focus on PPE production, separate from RESPOND, and recently was awarded $3.3 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Saberi is a co-PI on that project, as well, and WPI will be assisting with workforce training curriculum, direct help to companies as they develop their product lines, and access to equipment and facilities for training or prototyping, such as the Lab for Education and Application Prototypes (LEAP) and PracticePoint.
RESPOND researchers are tackling the challenge of future crises on four teams: a manufacturing science and system design/engineering team; an innovation and supply chain team; an education and workforce development team; and a government and industry team.
The researchers will analyze data collected by MERT about companies that expressed interest in pivoting their production, improve the database, and fine-tune a model that was developed during the pandemic to project the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Saberi says she will be part of the team analyzing data to determine the factors important in helping companies pivot.
“Equipment, expertise, trained and available workers, investment capital, relationships with customers, and many other factors go into the ability to pivot,” Saberi says. “It’s important to understand these factors as well as the ecosystem interactions because the idea of this project is not just to delve into research. We want to develop something practical that will help companies to pivot efficiently and help the state, and even other regions, to prepare for future crises.”
The research teams also plan to recommend how manufacturers and their customers could better evaluate innovations in a fast-moving emergency, hold “tabletop exercise” workshops in which participants will discuss roles and responses in a simulated emergency, and develop workforce training courses.
“A company’s ability to pivot is also important for its future success as new manufacturing technologies emerge to create revolutionarily new products,” Petkie says. “The state, through the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative that is also part of this effort, has supported a strong industry-academic ecosystem and enabled WPI to launch Practice Point and LEAP@WPI/QCC and partner with companies for product development and education and workforce development. This grant will strengthen this ecosystem and leverage resources across the commonwealth to allow companies to quickly respond to new challenges and opportunities.”