The Future of Logistical Resupply for Disaster Management, Response and Recovery

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One of the basic preparedness rules for successful disaster response and recovery is the principle that one should have a lot of “stuff” on hand because access, logistics and supply chains may quite likely be disrupted during such situations. In fact, the recommendation is that you should pre-position supplies to meet the wide range of potential needs. To fully respond to this imperative, it is often necessary to establish (multiple) remote logistical supply “dumps” to warehouse a full range of potential supplies. This is an expensive part of disaster preparedness cycle. Furthermore, despite extensive and wide-ranging advance placement, inevitably specific supplies, tools or equipment are missing and not available at the critical points when they are most needed. Is there a better way to plan to meet the needs for fast availability or such resources and to ensure resupply even during catastrophic events where one is essentially “on their own” for hours or days?

Author: Dr. Robert C. Chandler

Critical Supplies and Logistics for Disaster Management and Recovery

During routine operational conditions, effectively sustaining a functional resource supply chain can be a challenge. During a crisis, emergency or disaster, sustaining a reliable and efficient supply (resupply chain) can often be simply impossible.

Virginia Tech College of Business[i] quotes associate professor Chris Zobel on this challenge:

“Imagine the challenges of managing a supply chain to handle the recovery from a natural disaster, says Chris Zobel, an associate professor of business information technology who studies resilience in supply chains for disaster relief and readiness. A supply chain for a business, Zobel explains, is the series of processes involved in getting goods to customers, from order placement to delivery. Businesses have to consider six key parts of a supply chain: production (in a nutshell, what should be produced in what quantity and quality); supply (how and where the goods are to be made or sourced); inventory (how much to maintain); location (where to site plants and warehouses); transportation (ground, air, or sea?); and, lastly, information (how to obtain, organize, and manage all the information related to the business). Supply chain management is frequently used in disaster relief efforts, he says, noting that the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies won the European Supply Chain Excellence Award in 2006 for its disaster response activities. It is particularly important for the supply chains of humanitarian aid agencies to be resilient — to be strongly resistant to the initial impact of a disaster and to be able to recover quickly and respond and adapt well to changing conditions. ‘I want to help organizations improve their ability to prepare for and respond to disasters — particularly service-oriented organizations that have that as their core mission.’”

What if it were possible to quickly produce a wide range of essential disaster management and recovery supplies without dependence on risky supply chains or the necessity to preposition a massive amount of resources in multiple locations? It is increasingly possible that the future of supply and resupply has arrived and the complex, expensive, cumbersome and often unreliable traditional supply chain process can be replaced with products produced on-site in their field.

Supplies on Demand

Image credit: National Science Foundation

“3D printing” or additive manufacturing is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D-printed object is achieved using additive processes. (In an additive process, an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created. Each of these layers is a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object). Experts have suggested that 3D printing technology is the threshold point of a third industrial revolution, and will fundamentally alter all aspects of business production and product – including dramatic impacts on supply chains and resupply chains.

Additive Manufacturing – What is it?

“3D printing” starts with making a virtual design of an object. This virtual design is made in a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file using a 3D-modeling program (for the creation of a totally new object) or with the use of a 3D scanner (to copy an existing object). A 3D scanner makes a 3D digital virtual copy of an object. The “printing” or additive manufacturing (AM), uses successive layers of composite material which are formed to create a physical object. Objects can be of almost any shape or geometry and can be produced from digital model data 3D model or another electronic data source such as an Additive Manufacturing File (AMF) file.

Additive manufacturing in combination combined with cloud computing technologies allows decentralized and geographically independent distributed production. However, decoupled production without cloud computing connections is feasible if one has the proper software, data files and mobile printing technology on hand.

Advances in technology have introduced a growing variety of materials that are appropriate for manufacture, which has in turn introduced the possibility of directly manufacturing finished components virtually anywhere at any time. Thus far, AM can produce products made of plastic, composites and various types of metal.  In most cases, the printing is a rapid process and thus far has been very reliable. Furthermore, the cost factor for this process means that it is economically viable to produce small quantities of objects (or even one) at the time when they are needed.

Successful Demonstrations of the AM Process

An article published in The Economist reports on field applications of AM technology aboard the USS Harry S. Truman naval aircraft carrier on station in the eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf:

“…if it is a question of replacing a small but crucial component that has broken – the modern equivalent of reshoeing a horse – then making what is needed to order in this way has huge potential. Moving replacement parts through a long supply chain to a far-flung ship or base can take weeks. And, if a war is on, such convoys make tempting targets. Yet it is unrealistic to keep a full range of spares near the front line. Far better to produce what is needed when it is needed.

Having access to a printer can even encourage innovation. For example, the USS Harry S. Truman, an American aircraft-carrier, took two 3D printers on her most recent tour of duty…During the eight months she was at sea her crew devised and printed such items as better funnels for oil cans (to reduce spillage), protective covers for light switches (to stop people from bumping into them and inadvertently plunging, say, the flight deck into darkness) and also a cleverly shaped widget they dubbed the TruClip. This snaps onto walkie-talkies, reinforcing a connection that is otherwise prone to break in the rough-and-tumble of naval usage. According to Commander Al Palmer, one of the Truman’s maintenance officers, TruClips alone have saved more than $40,000 in replacement parts.”

The article also reports that currently: “Israel’s air force prints plastic parts that are as strong as aluminum, in order to keep planes that date from the 1980s flying. And America is advising the governments of Australia, Britain and France on 3D printing, in order to speed up these allies’ supply chains…”

Plastics, Metals and Composites

Image credit: NASA

AM started with the production of plastic items. However, over time, 3D printing has increasingly diversified beyond plastic components. Today, 3D printers can create a wide variety of complex objects composed of plastic, metal and composite materials. Currently these AM products range from titanium medical implants to nickel alloy aircraft and spaceship parts. Stephanie Yang (“3-D Printing Fuels Demand for Powered Metals.” Wall Street Journal, 12.29.16, B10) reports that the demand for AM materials is rapidly expanding for an ever-increasing range of 3D end products.

She writes that: “Demand for powders made of aluminum, cobalt, and other industrial metals is poised to take off over the next decade as 3-D printing technology becomes more widely used, especially in industries that use tailored component and parts.” Yang quotes Klaus Kleinfeld, Chairman and CEO of Arconic, a producer of 3D printer powdered metals, who says: “I think that we’re at a point here where the capabilities of 3-D printing, particularly in metals [are] so limitless.”

3D printing still must overcome obstacles of costs, reliability testing, and emerging software technology challenges before it becomes ubiquitous. Nonetheless, as Yang notes, existing objects in use today already include a GE Jet Engine, Anatomics rib-cage implant medical device, and an Airbus produced motorcycle frame and body.

AM’s Potential for Disaster Response and Recovery

The next step in this evolution is to find and apply applications of the AM technology to address the needs for disaster response and recovery supply needs and supply chain/prepositioning challenges. The following is a partial list of tools, devices, equipment and objects which are currently available for AM (3D printing) production:

  • Personal protection equipment and devices
  • Containers (many shapes, sizes and purposes) and lids/covers.
  • Hand tools (e.g. shovels, picks, axes, etc.)
  • 3D Signage
  • Valves, couplings, HVAC components, dewatering devices, plumbing items, tubing, conduits, etc.
  • Critical components (for equipment, vehicles, systems, etc.)
  • Storage units and mobile storage units
  • Debris collection devices and removal units
  • Sandbags and sandbag filling tools
  • Isolation and quarantine equipment
  • Fatality management bags, boxes and storage units
  • Emergency shelters
  • Traffic Management tools and equipment
  • 3D badging and Identification items
  • Incident command devices and supplies (e.g. vests, hats, workloads, fasteners, etc.)
  • Specialized items (e.g. whistles, pry bars, multiple purpose value shut off devices, wrenches, glass breakers, pliers, files, screwdrivers, levers, can openers, bottle openers, punch, knifes, filters, ear/eye protection, filtration masks, etc.)
  • Furniture (e.g. cots, desks, chairs, workstations, etc.)
  • Transportation (carts, wagons, wheelbarrows, etc.)

With innovation and creativity, there is a grand potential for using AM technology to address the immediate supply needs for disaster management and recovery. In the future – supply positioning may significantly include a variety of 3D (AM) printers, a database of CAD templates, a programmable CAD software for innovative new products and composite material-containing printer “ink” cartridges.

I think that AM is an inevitable and invaluable part of the future for disaster management and recovery supply and supply chain solutions. I foresee this as a very positive business opportunity for those who are inclined to investigate it further.

[i] http://www.magazine.pamplin.vt.edu/fall10/supplychain.html

“Having no truck with it”, The Economist, November 5, 2016: v. 421 (9014), 69-70

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