You can design the best product in the world but what if the parts, assemblies, and sub-components for your idea aren’t there?

What if a pandemic strikes, for example, and suddenly manufacturing locations are shut down?

Designers need to know available inventories around the world and be able to adjust if parts aren’t available. And if you’re a team at NASA and you want to make a ventilator in 37 days, you may have to shift your usual supply chain.

In the spring of 2020, as COVID-19 cases reached frightening highs, NASA researchers created a first wave of open-source ventilators, sprinting from prototype to production with designers, engineers, and procurement teams.

Called VITAL (Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally), the prototype was built in 37 days in March and April 2020.

To get the VITAL parts delivered quickly, NASA had to ensure that the components were made in the U.S., were available in high off-the-shelf volumes, and weren’t interfering with the medical supply chain.

The development of the ventilator prototype began at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. JPL collaborated with Erika Earl, a hardware developer at Supplyframe Design Lab, who was invited to consult on parts procurement and supply chain efforts.

With COVID-19 diagnoses at that time threatening to outpace the number of available ventilators to treat the illness, the NASA team worked at a much quicker pace than usual.

“It became very clear from the start that we were going to need parts as fast as humanly possible,” said Earl in the video below. “We needed to know that there were quantities available to ship immediately that met the requirements if we were going to achieve this expedited timeline.”

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Supplyframe helped NASA ensure that the components they chose could be effectively sourced – that they not only were available but that they were low-risk, compliant parts.

Every component in the ventilator had to be O2-compatible, for example, and operate in high concentrations of oxygen. Using Supplyframe’s supply chain search platform, NASA learned which electronic components were available, in industries both inside and outside of the medical field.

“After I found a series of components that maybe might work, one of my favorite features was being able to export and select different parameters of what you want to share,” said Earl. “So, I could immediately send them a list of options and their availability, by distributor, location, along with the data sheets.”

Richard Barnett, Chief Marketing Officer at Supplyframe, sees the NASA/Supplyframe collaboration as a demonstration of design’s future – a merging of engineering and sourcing to avoid problems that arise when you have multiple suppliers and multiple parts.

“I think it’s a real example of maybe what the next normal might look like,” Barnett told an audience during a Tech Briefs presentation this month, “Which is to move quickly and do everything possible to look at the potential constraints downstream.”

According to Barnett, in the new sourcing climate, “there needs to be a balanced approach to understand potential impact on product margin overall. We’re seeing a shift from just thinking about cost efficiency to having more of a balanced view of resiliency around product design.”

He added that, “When you’re purchasing or sourcing multiple suppliers or alternate parts in the actual formal design, you can now quantify what the actual average cost is across three different suppliers and look at that as your risk premium.”

Major contributors to product delays also have shifted post-COVID-19. These contributors vary by industry, said Barnett. “Some design cycles for companies -- like an industrial equipment or medical-device manufacturer, for example – will actually have an R&D or design cycle that may take place over nine months or longer because they are working on some fundamental design elements and the R&D is really unique. The industry may be highly regulated, so there are lead time delays associated with finding alternate suppliers or just working through a primary R&D cycle before it turns into a design bill of materials (BOM).”

With sourcing in the COVID-19 world, “you’re seeing pressure from companies to quickly [overcome] some of the regulatory burdens. The FDA has been very aggressive about supporting companies that are making critical components or supplies related to COVID-19 and relaxing some of those manufacturing or qualification bars,” said Barnett.

“In general, companies that are in, say, consumer electronics, will have a short three-month design cycle. Regardless of whether it’s nine months or three months, the key is to reduce delays by avoiding risks that occur at launch. Commonly, we see end-of-life parts that may have a two- to three-month life somehow slipping in the design, so new parts have to immediately be requalified in design changes – that really hurts a product’s ability to ramp to volume. Other issues are supply and lead time, available inventory, and unexpected issues related to high-risk sources of supply, like manufacturing locations.”

With so many tools promising collaboration within the enterprise, where should someone start? Barnett believes everyone should own collaboration, “and seek opportunities to work out of the patterns of silos and be cross-functional. We always see that biggest ‘value leakage’ in enterprise platforms is across those silos, not within those silos.”

“Large global organizations – in part, manufacturing – have often optimized within those silos and realized great productivity and a dedicated information system,” Barnett explained. “When you look across manufacturing and engineering, or sourcing and supplying, or ramping to production volume and manufacturing partners, those are the areas that really need to have a focus and clarity.”

Learn more about Supplyframe’s sourcing intelligence at .