Questionnaire: Kaitlin Wowak

An expert on supply chains discusses the challenges for businesses shifting production to equipment needed in the fight against COVID-19.

Author: Margaret Fosmoe ’85

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, businesses in the United States are being asked to make sudden changes to produce items needed for the battle to save lives. Automobile factories are shifting to make ventilators. Other facilities are ramping up production of masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment.

Kaitlin Wowak, an assistant professor of information technology, analytics and operations in Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, studies industrial supply chains. She answers questions below about the pivot businesses are making to support the pandemic response:


Kaitlin Wowak

How much work and how long does it take to convert an auto plant to ventilator production, as GM and Ford plan to do? What are the challenges in such a pivot?


There are three main challenges automobile companies such as GM and Ford face with pivoting from manufacturing cars to manufacturing ventilators.

The first challenge is securing new equipment needed to produce ventilators. GM and Ford may be able to use some of their existing equipment to produce ventilators, but will, most likely, have to acquire new manufacturing equipment and either temporarily replace their existing equipment with the new equipment or find space elsewhere in their manufacturing plants for the new equipment, if they want to minimize operational disruptions in the long term.

The second challenge is securing new suppliers for the materials needed to produce ventilators. The materials needed to produce certain items in high demand because of COVID-19, such as personal protective equipment, can easily be obtained because they are pretty generic. . . . Unfortunately, ventilators are much more complicated and thus the components needed to produce them are much harder to obtain from suppliers.

The third challenge is employee training. GM and Ford have extensive manufacturing experience and can leverage that experience when pivoting to produce ventilators, but the manufacturing process for cars and ventilators are not exactly the same so they need to quickly train their employees on a new manufacturing process.


How about ramping up domestic production of protective gowns, gloves and masks? Does the U.S. have the facilities and raw materials to do this?

It is much easier to increase production capacity for personal protective equipment such as gloves, hospital gowns and face masks, for a few reasons.

First, the materials and equipment needed to produce them are much more generic and widely available. Any organization that has fabric, elastic and a sewing machine can produce hospital gowns and face masks. We have actually seen a number of fashion designers, such as Louis Vuitton, step up to help fill the growing shortage of face masks and they can do so relatively quickly with the materials they currently have on hand.

Second, there is no standard design that companies have to follow when making personal protective equipment. For example, you can design face masks a hundred different ways depending on what materials you currently have on hand and it will still successfully accomplish what it is intended to do: slow the spread of COVID-19.

Ventilators have a pretty precise design and if companies deviate too much from the standard design, the product may not function properly or as effectively as it could.


What lessons might the average American be learning about the global supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic?

You won’t believe how many of my former students have reached out to me saying, “I am seeing so many of the concepts we covered in class talked about in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic!” Global supply chains are a central part of today’s economy, but COVID-19 is making that increasingly apparent to the average American. Issues around production capacity, bottlenecks, inventory shortages, sourcing of materials and effective distribution of products are playing a central role in how effective countries are in fighting COVID-19.


When the world gets through the worst of this crisis, what steps are needed to assure nations are better prepared for the next global health threat?

COVID-19 has certainly stressed supply chains around the world, but it will also provide a once-in-a-lifetime playbook about what to do when the world gets through it. I think every country right now has a list of things they would have done differently or will do differently if we ever see a global health threat such as COVID-19 again. For example, asking Americans to quarantine sooner could have slowed the spread of COVID-19 and having companies start producing key medical equipment, such as ventilators, earlier could have helped mitigate the critical shortage hospitals currently face for such items.

Hopefully, we never see a global health threat such as COVID-19 again, but if we do, I think countries around the world will be much better prepared to fight.

Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.