Reflections on Retooling for the COVID‑19 Pandemic
Department of City and Regional Planning
Factories are adapting to the new conditions and needs the coronavirus has introduced by retooling production lines and repurposing knowledge and technology to manufacture essential items for COVID‑19 management. Nichola Lowe and Tara Vinodrai assess the nature and scale of these retooling efforts and argue that institutions can support manufacturing in ways that respond to crises and support economic regeneration.
Factories in cities and communities around the world are retooling production lines in response to the novel coronavirus. They have repurposed existing knowledge, technology and operations in order to make personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitizing solutions, medical devices, hospital beds, emergency tenting and test kits, among other essential items. Such retooling efforts highlight the value of well-run, locally coordinated supplier and production networks.
As an appreciation for nearby manufacturing capacity grows, so too does the prospect of reshoring various production supply chains. Not all production will return home, but the product lines that do come back could help soften the blow of decades of deindustrialization, which has gutted once-vibrant manufacturing cities and communities across North America, taking many good-paying jobs with it. But turning this moment of heightened demand for domestically sourced goods into a longer-term economic opportunity requires much more than quick thinking by a few enterprising manufacturers. Policymakers and business support organizations must also commit to turning this unanticipated moment into a broadly shared opportunity for business growth and improved worker livelihoods.
When this pandemic first hit North America, we sought to document and understand the nature and scale of this manufacturing response and consider its broader significance for the U.S. and Canada. We began by cataloging media accounts that reported on manufacturers who were pivoting or retooling to produce much-needed medical equipment. We captured not just the names of specific firms and their new production contribution, but also determined their pre‑COVID product specialization, location, workforce size and founding date by linking that information to other data sources. Importantly, we also structured our media study to draw out the behind-the-scenes institutional supports that are helping these firms pivot and shift — reaching out to some of these institutions for more detail on what they are doing in support. With help from Austin Amandolia, a UNC–Chapel Hill graduate student, and aided by numerous industry and economic-development contacts that shared further details, we had logged close to 130 examples by the end of May, with a goal of continuing this effort.
Digging deeper into these stories — some involving well-established manufacturing firms, others a new generation of product designers or “makers” — we glimpse elements of what could become a more salient and scalable institutional response. This response, if done well, could expand U.S. and Canadian manufacturing employment and entrepreneurial prospects for years, if not decades, to come. While it is too soon to fully predict what this North American manufacturing future will actually look like, our in‑depth, ongoing analysis suggests emergent trends that can guide how policymakers and practitioners could transform this pandemic response into lasting, opportunity-rich economic gain.
The majority of these retooling efforts build on pre‑existing knowledge and expertise at the factory and regional levels. Makers of alcoholic beverages — craft brewers like Dogfish Head (U.S.) and Collective Arts (Canada), or hard-spirit makers like Durham Distillery (U.S.) and Spirit of York (Canada) — are now producing hand sanitizer or surface-cleaning sprays. Masks, gowns and fabric tents are manufactured at existing sewn-goods factories, that under normal circumstances would be making clothing items or covers for upholstered furniture. And metal- or precision-parts manufacturers, including specialized suppliers for automotive and aerospace assemblers, are now churning out critical parts for medical devices, ventilators, hospital beds or plexiglass dividers.
There is embodied knowledge within these facilities that helps to extend specialization boundaries and reaches all the way down to the shop floor, with frontline production workers drawing on collective skills to quickly adapt to new immediate needs. Even systems knowledge is proving critical, with prominent equipment assemblers — such as General Motors — offering real-time supply-chain management support to smaller-sized medical-device firms to help them get the parts they need to scale production in an efficient and timely manner. There is also an equally rapid redeployment of existing technological investments (e.g. copper stills that would normally contain vodka or gin, banks of sewing machines for clothing production and metal stamping machines that generate parts for transit systems) that have been reoriented to make something essential yet, for these manufacturers, also something new.
Economic-development scholars have long recognized past-to-present connections — whether material or cognitive — as critical for economic resilience and recovery (Christopherson 2009). Legacy skills, entrenched practices and prior production routines can drive organizational and industrial reorientation, both temporary and permanent. It is not surprising, then, that many of the cases we have documented thus far involve well-established firms iterating and amending what they already know. And the institutional actors offering them support are acutely aware of the need to reinforce this “relatedness,” ensuring manufacturers in both the U.S. and Canada can manage the risks associated with stretching beyond their existing routines and markets.
Can this pandemic-era retooling be sustained over time? Will firms revert back to old production lines and routines (assuming that demand for the products they made before the outbreak returns)? Or is there an opportunity for manufacturers that are now making PPE, medical devices or specialized hospital equipment to continue to serve national or global healthcare needs longer-term, knowing that the “caring” economy upon which all this is based is also projected to grow.
Manufacturing support institutions that we emailed or have spoken with are grappling with these questions as they engage manufacturers in support of their immediate retooling needs. In North Carolina, for example, the federal- and state-funded North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Program (MEP) is helping firms map the path needed to extend contracts post-pandemic. Admittedly, for certain cost-sensitive products, especially where global competition is most fierce (paper or basic fabric masks or gowns, for example), the financial returns may not be sufficient without further policy action taken to set requirements on domestic sourcing, either through federal mandate or locally initiated purchasing commitments. But for other product lines, where competitive advantage is focused less on lowering costs and more on promoting innovation or continuous improvement, the opportunity is much more promising — but so too is the need for continued and coordinated institutional support.
Localized institutional leadership could offer broader benefits if further scaled. One notable focus area is product quality and safety. In both the U.S. and Canada, production requirements (and to some extent product standards) have been temporarily relaxed to allow firms outside of authorized supply chains to join the effort. But while regulatory softening may be necessary for meeting emergency needs today, longer-term, it could prove problematic.
Organizations like North Carolina’s MEP recognize this tension and are starting to nudge client manufacturers to look further afield: this includes completing quality-management and process-safety certifications now in order to signal their ongoing commitment to serve healthcare markets and other closely regulated industries going forward (Allan and Sriram 2000; Cargill 2017). Staff at the Carolina Textile District — a network of over 50 small-sized textile and apparel-making firms in North and South Carolina (Lowe et al. 2018) — are also instilling in member firms a shared commitment to product quality standards, initially engaging healthcare professionals and fabric-testing experts in prototype development, increasing the chances that the products being made across this distributed production network will be trusted and remain in use longer-term. While pandemic needs may have cracked open a window, institutional support is needed to keep products safe and reliable once that aperture has closed.
While our cases of retooling mostly involve incumbent firms with a long manufacturing history, there are further signs that institutional support is helping younger firms establish a manufacturing presence and foothold. An illustrative example is InkSmith, a Canadian-based educational technology startup venture that was initially focused on designing robotics kits and other classroom products, which pre‑COVID‑19 employed 10 workers. With COVID‑19 cases on the rise, InkSmith was approached by a physician asking if the firm could redeploy their 3D and laser printing technology to instead design protective face shields in support of an overwhelmed regional healthcare system. InkSmith’s initial prototype was co-designed with frontline health workers’ input and manufactured in small batches with the help of Kwartzlab, a member-based maker space, and other community organizations, including public libraries.
Admittedly, their original face-shield design did not have regulatory approval and involved an overly complex design that slowed production and assembly. To remedy this, the company turned once again to regional healthcare workers, resulting in an improved product that could more easily be mass-produced. Local support organizations were called on to help fast-track approval from regulators at Health Canada, ensuring the shield could be used in Canadian hospital rooms and facilities and worn by healthcare workers with Covid‑19 patients in their direct care. With regulatory approval in hand, InkSmith was able to spin out a stand-alone operation: Canadian Shield. By the end of April, Canadian Shield had reached 150 employees, and they are expected to double that number by the early summer. Their production growth is equally impressive, scaling from five units at the start to 50,000 per day at present, with secure public-procurement contracts from provincial and national governments.
The rapid scaling of Canadian Shield — over the course of only a few weeks — was aided by institutional networks within a legacy manufacturing region, Kitchener–Waterloo, one that also boasts a robust innovation-focused ecosystem (Spigel and Vinodrai 2020). Local industry associations, such as Communitech, which had helped InkSmith initially launch by facilitating connections to educational institutions, jumped in again to quickly reorient their networks and support towards healthcare. In this regard, the stories of manufacturing retooling are not just capturing shifting practices and priorities on the factory floor; they involve institutional redirection as well.
The examples shared here are reminders of how support institutions — especially those that are government-funded and interconnected — can guide manufacturing responses to unanticipated emergencies and reinforce the foundation for longer-term economic regeneration. These cases show how cities and communities across North America can reinvigorate local manufacturing industries and operations, leveraging business relationships, institutional networks and workforce skills critical to the COVID‑19 response in order to power economic recovery.
But these are not the only accounts of North American manufacturing that need to be recognized if a future recovery effort is to be broad-reaching and equitable. Many other manufacturing stories are deeply troubling, particularly in food production, where meatpacking plants are exploiting regulatory loopholes to undermine workplace safety and worker rights. Such accounts, with clear evidence of workplace abuse, also observed in warehouse operations (e.g. Amazon) that temporarily store manufactured products, suggest we need to be pushing institutional action and standard-setting even further (Helper et al. 2020; Gerstein and Flanagan 2020). Ultimately, this means ensuring that the manufacturing workforce that makes essential products now or going forward also enjoys the family-supporting wages, good benefits and safety protections they deserve.
Nichola Lowe – Nichola Lowe is professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work focuses on the institutional arrangements that lead to more inclusive forms of economic development and, specifically, the role that practitioners can play in aligning growth and equity goals through their engagement with private business. Her forthcoming book, “Putting Skill to Work : How to Create Good Jobs in Uncertain Times” (MIT Press), examines how workforce institutions engage ambiguities around skill to extend economic opportunity to frontline manufacturing workers.
- Allen, Robert H. and Sriram, Ram D. 2000. “The role of standards in innovation”, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, vol. 64, nos. 2–3, pp. 171–181.
- Cargill, Carl F. 2017. “Standardization, innovation and reality: matching theory and practice”, in R. Hawkins, K. Blind and R. Page (eds.), Handbook of Innovation and Standards, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
- Christopherson, Susan. 2009. “Manufacturing: Up from the Ashes”, Democracy, fall.
- Gerstein, Terry and Flanagan, Jane. 2020. “State and local labor standards enforcement during COVID‑19: Protecting workers’ health and economic security during a pandemic”, Economic Policy Institute, April.
- Helper, Susan; Gray, Jason; and Osborn, Beverly. 2020. “Retool U.S. Supply Chains to Address Weakness Exposed by New Coronavirus”, Washington Center for Equitable Growth, March.
- Lowe, Nichola; Durfee, Colleen; and Vinodrai, Tara. 2018. “Threading together Carolina’s Textile Manufacturing Comeback”, Angles, 24 April.
- Spigel, Ben and Vinodrai, Tara. 2020. “Meeting its Waterloo? Recycling in entrepreneurial ecosystems after anchor firm collapse”, Entrepreneurship and Regional Development.
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