COVID-19 and Supply Chain: Using AI and 3D Printing to Help Meet Surging Demands

AI Monitors Demand Volatility, New Technologies Help Balance Demand

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No matter who you ask, the COVID-19 pandemic has materially changed our daily lives. Each day we wake up under the assumption that there is a new normal to aspire to. A simple cough or sneeze brings up fears of how the COVID-19 virus might impact our routines and our families, keeping our sense of safety at bay during critical parts of the workday.

For businesses, uncertainty based on population health dynamics have left many to equate the pandemic to a “black swan” event, an event beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. It has the characteristic of having high market impact making short-term and long-term consequences that are difficult to measure. The business uncertainty is so great that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has warned that global economic growth could be cut in half due to the coronavirus, putting more pressure on small and large businesses to be realistic in their plans for growth and influence.

Large swings in demand create more crises than opportunities for traditional supply chains to manage through, whether it is a hospital or retail grocery store. To increase flexibility and impact in the supply chain, there are two major areas that need to be managed carefully: (1) the management of short and long term demand and (2) inventory planning of critical resources such as personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospital workers and consumer staples such as non-perishables. The key would be to find innovative ways to deliver what is needed to service customers’ requirements with minimal interruptions.

Demand volatility and Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Supply shortages have often been the result of poor forecasting. However, the coronavirus has put a new spin on how best to capture spikes and troughs in the average person’s daily needs. Demand volatility is the result of the perception of uncertainty in the flow of goods. What is needed is stronger predictive models that can absorb large amounts of data to pick up trends early and smooth the curves to create the best picture of what people want and need.

Companies that are innovating in this space are using AI and Big Data to leverage aggregate metrics to create strong predictive models required to return to a normal demand-driven landscape. Some of these companies include:

  • Kinaxis – Canadian-based supply chain monitoring and response company focused in managing supply chain volatility with unlimited report access at no charge
  • Blue Prism – UK-based intelligent platform to keep supply chain synchronized with automated management by virtual workers
  • UiPath – NYC-based robotics process automation (RPA) applied to supply chain secures cost reduction in vendor and resource management
  • Luminoso – Boston-based text collection system to capture and manage brand messaging for consumer research
  • Cycorp – Texas-based supply chain optimization solution combines detailed supply chain modeling with intelligent data source integration and natural language explanations to provide insights that go beyond more traditional systems
  • IBM WatsonGlobal provider of intelligent, end-to-end supply chain visibility and transparency using AI workflows to improve predictions and probability of on-time availability of goods and services
  • MIT Media LabCambridge, MA – based research facility that matches disparate research areas to embrace disruptive technologies. The organization also hosts forum on supply chain innovation


Balancing Demand with new Supply entrants

The coronavirus has highlighted the downfalls of globalization of the supply chain, leading to a perfect storm scenario as countries are looking to protect their own citizens first. This has led to panic buying and hoarding, two psychological events that are the result of sudden fears inaccessibility to those things that keep us comfortable. Moving supply sources back home requires time and a new appreciation for home-grown technologies.

Supply chain disruption has particularly affected availability of gowns, caps, masks, and other important medical supplies, which are resources needed to save patients’ lives. Companies have turned to innovative technology approaches to fill the gap, such as 3D printing.

Some new technologies worth noting that are aimed at helping to improve the supply situation of these critical resources including the following companies:

  • Maker Mask – 3D printable respirator quality masks that are NIH-approved
  • Verdex Technologies – Produces nanofibers used for industrial filtering for protective masks that are more breathable than competitors’ products
  • Hewlett-Packard – Produces 3D printing parts for applications such as hands-free door openers, mask adjuster, face shields, and soon to be field ventilators and FFP3 Face masks.


Leveraging technology to minimize supply chain interruptions is important to managing the coronavirus situation. We are currently going through transformational growing pains to do with new processes related to out-of-the-box thinking on how to resolve daily demand/supply imbalances management. The technologies highlighted are a first step to address shortages in critical resources. Let’s hope the future brings forward a new form of collaboration with technologies at all levels of oversight to resolve supply chain challenges in a more flexible and painless way.

This is the first in a series from the global yet2 team looking at how open innovation can help alleviate challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Sign up to receive COVID-19 open innovation news and insights.

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