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How to prepare for the next national crisis

How to prepare for the next national crisis
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We’re now battling the worst global pandemic in a century, but this isn’t a once-in-a-century fight. We don’t know when another shock of equal magnitude will happen — only that it will. Which is why, before it’s too late, we should ask ourselves a tough question: How should we prepare for the next crisis?

My short answer is that it’s time to reinvent our approach to national response. We need a strategy that anticipates an exponential increase in unpredictable threats that regularly disrupt society — not only pandemics, but severe weather, natural disasters, cyberattacks and terrorist acts.

This might seem like a dire outlook, but I’m not feeling fearful: I’m feeling optimistic. We face unforeseen threats coming at us faster than ever before, but we also have new technology available to help us stay ahead of these threats and ultimately win. We have an opportunity now to transform critical infrastructure so that national responses to shocks and stress actually strengthen society.  

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Our work begins by committing to a new spirit of relentless and constant innovation with digital tools — and this innovation should be focused in two key, interrelated areas: America’s Strategic National Stockpile and its manufacturing sector.

The nation’s response to COVID-19 has made it clear that America must have adequate emergency supplies — both the right type and quantity — for the sake of our lives, economy and homeland security. This includes pharmaceutical and medical devices. It includes bulk electricity equipment to stem power outages and disaster relief items to support rescue workers and victims of disaster. Just as critical, though, is the ability to rapidly manufacture and distribute these items.

Before this pandemic we might have thought that reshoring manufacturing was purely an economic issue and less about national resilience. Yet recent challenges to ramp up production of everything from personal protective equipment to testing kits show us that the unpredictability of a threat can only be overcome with the flexibility of the response. The ability to quickly activate regional supply chains can help governments match speed to need in any crisis.

Let’s look first at the national stockpile. One challenge in managing it is the impossibility to predict exactly what we’ll need or when we’ll need it. Another pandemic could be months, years or decades away. What if stored supplies are obsolete or aged when crisis hits?

Rather than a physical stockpile, what we really need is a digital one that leverages powerful software and data. Like the smartphone has changed our personal lives, the future of manufacturing is being remade by what industry experts call “digital twins” that have eliminated the need to build costly, time-consuming physical prototypes. (Full disclosure: My company, Siemens, is one of several providers of digital twin software.) Digital twins not only provide virtual replicas of any physical item; they enable engineers to virtually test, verify and continually refine how products will perform in the real world. And they do it all before the product is physically built.

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This technology has been used to develop countless new products in fields ranging from aerospace to cosmetics. It’s how NASA simulated an atmosphere 100 times thinner than Earth’s to verify that the rover Curiosity could successfully reach and land on the surface of Mars.    

Let’s now use these same tools to out-innovate the challenges we face by creating a strategic digital twin reserve. Doing so would provide America with a library of digital blueprints for producing cutting-edge emergency supplies. It would provide emergency response agencies and front-line heroes with the flexibility they need to more rapidly assess threats, mobilize and deploy resources. And it would support a more proactive approach to developing next-generation emergency response solutions, from mobile power equipment to help communities during wildfires and floods, to the most effective personal protective equipment for frontline workers and citizens alike to use during any type of emergency.

Of course, in an emergency, production and distribution systems need to respond rapidly. And that’s why America also needs to refocus on its manufacturing capabilities. To start, we would need manufacturers contributing designs to our digital twin reserve and also equipped with agile, flexible production lines that could rapidly produce items at scale. But we also need to simplify domestic supply chains by mastering additive manufacturing methods such as 3D printing and, in particular, by producing supplies as close as possible to the point of need.

One way we can strengthen regional production networks and supplement private-sector production is by more effectively leveraging the U.S. Department of Defense’s Organic Industrial Base (OIB), which consists of approximately two dozen domestic manufacturing sites located in all regions of the country.

The civilian employees working in these factories support national defense by exclusively producing military equipment. What if we now expanded the scope of this work to support the nation in confronting the full range of threats we face?

We would need to start by investing in upgrades and repairs to bring the OIB into the digital world. More than half of the industrial base was built before 1945. Compounding maintenance challenges, the facilities have been in continuous operation since 2003, and — according to a report to Congress — now show the “effects of overuse and lack of infrastructure funding.”

There’s a cost to making such improvements, yet the potential returns on investment are eye opening.

A national manufacturing institute in Chicago, MxD, found that digital manufacturing technologies could increase technical workforce productivity at one OIB site by 40 to 45 percent and reduce maintenance downtime by up to 50 percent. These powerful productivity gains provide a strong business case not just for modernizing the OIB, but for creating U.S. jobs by reshoring more manufacturing activities and strengthening the sector’s global competitiveness.

It was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who once observed a tendency in many armies to, as he put it, study how to the fight the last war instead of the next one. By reinventing the national stockpile and recognizing manufacturing as core to national response, America would indeed be ready for whatever comes at us next.

And if we invest in infrastructure and inspire workers to lead the way with digital tools, our focus on resilience will also fuel America’s recovery.

Barbara Humpton is the CEO of Siemens USA.