Among the things learned during the COVID-19 pandemic is that our supply chains are on the verge of breaking. National borders that had receded into the background of a globalizing world have been thrust to the fore in the scramble to obtain life-saving Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for those on the front lines of the battle against the virus. A means of shortening and strengthening those supply chains is critical — and available.

We have all read about the surgical masks in such urgent demand. Federal, state, and local government officials, hospital administrators, and first responders have struggled to secure these masks at any cost. At the same time, entrepreneurs in China have launched manufacturing facilities in record time. While this has raised obvious concern over quality control, it has also illustrated the benefit of manufacturing agility, which the U.S. has not yet shown the willingness to adopt.

Among the most enduring images of American manufacturing are the early days of the Ford Motor Company, a positive symbol of manufacturing because Henry Ford thought of factories as far more than buildings and production lines. They were ecosystems that encompassed the community of businesses providing services to factories and workers, from sales and supply-chain to cafeterias and recreation facilities. During World War II, Ford stepped up building over 85,000 airplanes and 275,000 critically needed vehicles.

The world has changed, but the opportunity to emulate Ford remains. Distilleries have switched production from spirits to hand sanitizer. This is an example of the type of manufacturing agility I referenced earlier at work. For the long-term, I believe what’s needed are agile, micro-scale manufacturing facilities. These will be closer to consumers, reduce CO2 emissions and supply chain threats, and bring necessary products — including PPE — to market faster and more responsively, using known inputs, visible supply chains, and non-exploitative labor.

Local manufacturing can be used to repair supply chains, facilitating growth of business and entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Rapid prototyping technologies and inexpensive automation means entrepreneurs can bring their products to market at scale without the need for prohibitively expensive factories. This democratization of manufacturing means communities will no longer need to emphasize the attraction of monolithic factories with outsized incentive packages. Instead, they can rapidly scale businesses and products from local innovation. By doing so, entire communities can be proud because they are creating jobs and working together. This supports the movement towards greater authenticity in consumption patterns.

In this new environment, gains from innovation outweigh higher labor costs, and proximity to markets brings dramatic information advantages. Companies must still engage across global markets, but to remain relevant and competitive they will have to think, act, and produce locally. The future requires solutions that offer quick, rational, and economical reconfiguration of the existing manufacturing system — from mobile production systems to pop-up factories and makerspace ecosystems in every community.

Local integration of production creates additional jobs and ultimately improves local economies. According to a recent World Economic Forum publication, "every manufacturing position creates 2.5 jobs in local goods and services, and for every dollar of value created in manufacturing, another $1.37 is created in additional value in other sectors."

In The Spotlight

Some are urging a return to “Buy American” as the country strives to emerge from the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic. But that is unrealistic for many products — think televisions and other electronic goods. In response to COVID-19, however, strategic, local manufacturing of PPE can be a key to safety, security, and ongoing economic success.

A small factory of approximately 4,000 square feet could produce nearly half-a-million surgical masks each week on the doorstep of local hospitals and nursing homes that so desperately need them. Such dispersed, agile, and scalable production could quickly respond to dramatic peaks in demand, as we are now seeing, without the need to invest in large-scale facilities expansion.

Federal, state, and local officials should encourage and welcome this type of small, nimble manufacturing. These leaders, elected or not, should help identify and implement the actions necessary to bring such manufacturing to fruition. Their constituents — indeed, all consumers — are increasingly demanding transparency in government decision-making, especially procurement actions being made in the time of COVID-19.

We cannot continue to rely on individual states or the owners of professional sports teams to charter jumbo jets to fly to China and retrieve overpriced PPE. Instead, local manufacturing can be used to repair those supply chains, facilitating growth of business and entrepreneurial ecosystems.

With that in mind, numerous Members of Congress have proposed incentives to businesses to bring critical manufacturing capacity, including PPE, back to our shores. This is an idea which would benefit us all — both in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.


Bob Bissen
About The Author Bob Bissen
Bob Bissen, a government relations and public affairs practitioner, is Senior Vice President at Cannae Policy Group in Washington, DC, and Founder and President of RJB Strategies in Annandale, VA. He was included in The Hill newspaper list of top lobbyists in 2019 and 2020.

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