The Challenges of Making N95 Masks

The Challenges of Making N95 Masks

Why can’t we produce N95 masks fast enough?

As the US faces shortages of N95 masks, this article highlights the challenges of producing them. China, a country that has ramped up production for itself and for the world, has had to overcome major obstacles even with huge government subsidies and help from regulators. Problems ranging from material shortages to building machines threaten the conversion of existing capacity to mask manufacturing.


Video Spotlight: How China Can Produce 200 Million Masks a Day


This post is based on the npr.org article, COVID-19 Has Caused a Shortage of Face Masks. But They’re Surprisingly Hard to Make, by E. Feng and A. Cheng, March 16, 2020, and the YouTube video, Inside China’s Biggest Mask Factory, by Goldthread, March 19, 2020. Image source: ERProductions Ltd/Blend Images LLC.

Discussion Questions:

1. What problems do manufacturers face when they repurpose their facilities for the production of masks?

Guidance: Manufacturers have to overcome their lack of expertise in making new components, set up operations in sterile environments, buy used or new machines, purchase specialized materials in short supply or set up production lines for those materials, experience delivery delays, and train existing and new workers. For novices of mask manufacturing, developing processes capable of meeting strict specifications is challenging; it is therefore uncertain whether their products will be deemed safe for the medical community.

2. For these manufacturers, is it possible to develop effective aggregate plans?

Guidance: Good aggregate plans are based on good data. Given the uncertainties associated with the pandemic, it is difficult to obtain reliable data and plan accordingly. Demand forecasts keep increasing, and it is hard to anticipate the quantity and timing of competitors’ capacity expansion around the world. Capacity would have to be expanded rapidly before developing intermediate plans, and the typical capacity strategies to handle demand increases (e.g. excess capacity, overtime, finished goods inventories, and subcontracting) have limited potential in this instance. With great unpredictability in both demand and capacity, attempts to align them seem futile. Effective aggregate planning takes time, and there is not enough of it.

3. Do you anticipate many changes in the primary reports of mask manufacturers’ MRP systems?

Guidance: The inputs to MRP systems are the master production schedule (MPS), the bill of materials (BOM), and inventory records. The MPS is a disaggregation of the aggregate plan. Since the repurposing of production capacity is dedicated to one or two products (e.g. N95 and surgery masks), one can argue that there is minimal, if any, disaggregation. Furthermore, short-term forecasts project a demand for masks exceeding capacity. Therefore, the decision to run at full capacity seems obvious. Nevertheless, MPS quantities will have to be altered frequently given supply shortages and capacity disruptions with unexperienced workers handling process and maintenance issues for new production lines. Given the material and component shortages as well as delivery delays, the lead times of the BOMs will be unreliable, and inventory records will require frequent updates. Uncertainties in the inputs will result in repeated changes to planned orders and timing of order releases, which are the primary outputs of an MRP system.

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