Overcoming a global pandemic—as we are all now learning—really is akin to fighting a war. Just as during wartime, supply chains are paramount to the safety and effectiveness of the men and women on the front line. During this current crisis, the design of some manufacturing and distribution facilities has made them better able to join the fight.
The COVID-19 pandemic has altered many lines of business in unexpected ways. One of these is the phenomenon of manufacturers tweaking their production lines to generate items that can aid in the fight against the deadly outbreak.
“These pragmatic industrialists are smart and have figured out how to redeploy their assets to serve their communities,” said Karl Heitman, president of Heitman Architects. “I want to commend our clients for doing so.”
Synergy Flavors—a global manufacturer and supplier of flavorings, extracts and essences with U.S. headquarters in Wauconda, Illinois—reallocated production capacity to fabricate industrial-grade hand sanitizers for employees, their families and for local emergency care workers. Similarly, Downers Grove, Illinois-based Flavorchem shifted its operational capabilities to provide specially denatured alcohol, a key ingredient in hand sanitizers as well as household cleaning and disinfecting products.
Both firms’ production facilities were designed for compliance with food and pharma industry certifications. This means more stringent requirements in terms of separating clean and dirty parts of the plant, as well as increased safety and security measures. However, the ability to quickly pivot in the face of the pandemic would not have been possible without a flexible design.
“What differentiates them from other facilities is how their production facilities work. Flexibility is key to that,” Heitman said. “All manufacturing facilities should be designed to quickly redirect their operations for different types of products, and not just for the pandemic.”
Synergy and Flavorchem’s factories have another asset, one that works hand-in-hand with flexibility: organization. As a well-organized workplace is laid out to optimize operational efficiencies, this creates agile production capabilities and allows for the seamless switch from food flavoring to hand sanitizer.
“In terms of workplace strategy, ‘agility’ is a word that office designers like to use, but it really applies to manufacturing and material handling logistics operations as well,” said Heitman. “When it comes to manufacturing and industrial production facilities, the output is so easy to measure; you can see how the performance of those facilities are really enhanced by well-planned, well-organized layouts.”
A structured yet flexible manufacturing property improves productivity in the best of times. But those aspects are also key during critical situations such as the current pandemic. Especially in facilities that serve the food and pharma industries, cleanliness is essential, and populations are separated within the building to control the transmission of germs. There should be limited points of entry, as well as direct routes for employee as they enter the facility or move back and forth from the production line to showers, gowning areas or lunchrooms.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest enemies to a tightly controlled facility is business expansion. That was the case with Synergy and as they evolved over the years, building onto their original property, their well-organized space was lost to growth. Heitman Architects designed a new space for them that could accommodate all the new business lines they were involved in. The firm has also performed numerous redevelopment projects for existing manufacturers to unravel inefficiencies and create state of the art facilities.
The effects of COVID-19 on industrial properties aren’t limited to manufacturers switching production focus. The pandemic is highlighting weaknesses within the network of logistics warehouses around the country.
“You hear stories about ventilators not getting to hospitals in New York quickly enough, when in fact they have actually already been sent but they’re sitting in a warehouse,” Heitman said. “There’s some break in the supply chain that doesn’t get them to where they need to go.”
Heitman Architects has designed a number of spec and build-to-suit warehouses, including for Medline, the largest privately held medical supplies manufacturer/distributor. For Medline and companies like them, their role is to be the first responders for the first responders—a function that is critical, now more than ever before.
One differentiator of a distribution center that processes essential medical supplies is power. While many standard industrial warehouses may have backup generators, they are a must for facilities serving the healthcare industry so that they can continuously function during a crisis and prevent further supply chain breakdowns. In fact, these buildings are often sited near dual transformer sources so that there are multiple power grids that might supply the building.
Cleanliness and proper maintenance are extremely important at these facilities, so extermination services, for example, are usually performed weekly. Heavy duty dock equipment includes weather seals and rodent guards while dock doors that may be open for ventilation often have insect screens.
Distribution centers that serve the healthcare sector tend to be at the bleeding edge of industrial building design. This means column flexibility and greater clear heights to facilitated future evolutions in automatic storage retrieval systems.
Among the lessons to be learned after the pandemic is over, we will all hopefully have a better understanding of how many components are essential to the global supply chain. According to Heitman, this is a known factor in the development and design community, but the clients are still catching on. “We need to take that vision to our user customers, because they may not be quite as aware of that broader spectrum like we are,” Heitman said. “When you’re going over their project requirements list, it’s really just the size of the box and the number of docks. They’re not thinking of the broader picture, though that may now be more obvious now that we see the stress in our supply chain due to the pandemic.”