As the pandemic disrupts markets, manufacturers are relying on and adjusting digital commerce and related operations to improve how they serve customers.

Many U.S. manufacturers have experienced and managed a crisis or two in their time. Manufacturers have seen production slowdowns, strikes, recessions, depressions and natural disasters, to name a few.

A major government contractor reached out to us over the weekend, needing our assistance with producing tens of thousands of emergency respiratory masks for five Los Angeles area hospitals.

In ecommerce, many manufacturers have lived through the dot-com crash of 2000-2002 and the Great Recession of 2008. They’ve also wrestled with tough internal challenges, such as overcoming numerous obstacles and skeptics inside the organization to build and sustain an ecommerce program. And many have faced down their long-time distributors, wholesalers and retailers to bypass the middleman and sell online directly to businesses and consumers.

But the latest crisis testing the ecommerce mettle of manufacturers is the coronavirus, the fast-spreading and long-lasting pandemic that’s brought national economies to a standstill, forced all or big parts of entire societies indoors, and threatens to overwhelm local, regional and national health systems.

Testing ecommerce infrastructure

The coronavirus is also a crisis that’s testing manufacturers and their ecommerce business and infrastructure in ways never before seen, say manufacturing organizations and ecommerce consultants. “I was speaking with the CEO of a manufacturer a few days ago who has made considerable investments in their ecommerce and Amazon channels, and he believes these investments are the reason his company can sustain through this as their traditional channels have largely shut down,” says Brian Beck, a managing partner of Enceiba, an agency that helps manufacturers and brands sell through and Amazon Business.  “Ecommerce is the lifeline for manufacturers at this time.”

The coronavirus has put the ecommerce operations of many business-to-consumer manufacturers on hold, or even temporarily closed their operations.


But other manufacturers have shifted capability away from their regular production to produce such much-needed medical supplies as ventilators, gloves, face masks and related personal protective equipment, or PPE. For example, Proto Labs Inc., a provider of 3D printing and other forms of custom-manufacturing and does virtually all of its sales through its ecommerce site, is shifting production to prioritize product manufacturing and delivery for healthcare companies.

Accelerating production of medical products

In all, Protolabs is working on about a dozen manufacturing and engineering projects related to companies and organizations accelerating the production of products needed to fight the coronavirus. They range from a major biomedical testing company needing help with expediting sheet metal fabricated components for their automated lab testing equipment, to help with COVID-19 diagnosis. One Protolabs client, a developer of emergency response medical equipment, submitted an urgent order for 25 different molds, each producing about 2,000 different components for ventilator production.

In Europe, Protolabs is working with Italian engineers to turn snorkel materials into ventilator masks and with a molecular diagnostics developer to produce plastic cassettes used in COVID-19 testing.

“We are prioritizing projects which are needed to equip our medical system to treat patients with COVID-19 and providing these customers with additional consultative design assistance to rapidly get these parts produced,” says a Protolabs spokeswoman. “For example, a major government contractor reached out to us, needing our assistance with producing tens of thousands of emergency respiratory masks for five Los Angeles area hospitals that are running out of masks,” she says.

Another Protolabs customer, a virus detection equipment provider, is working with labs across the country to detect COVID-19 and develop a vaccine. That company “is having us produce multiple components for their equipment,” the Protolabs spokeswoman says.


Ready to adjust to market changes

Many manufacturers are continuing to operate their business and ecommerce operation as normal—at least for now. At TE Connectivity Inc., a $14 billion Switzerland-based electronics component manufacturer, ecommerce has yet to see any big disruptions. “From an ecommerce standpoint, we haven’t seen any impact, but it’s pretty early in the situation to tell,” says TE Connectivity director of e-business and digital commerce Steve Max.

For the time being, it’s also business as usual for Bradford White Corp., a 149-year-old manufacturer of residential and commercial water heaters headquartered in Ambler, Pennsylvania. For now, given that water-heating appliances are essential for the production of hot water in homes and healthcare facilities on a regular basis, we and many of our customers are operating under fairly business-as-usual circumstances,” says senior director of marketing communications Carl Pinto Jr. “We know that our distributors are experimenting with new ways of servicing the contracting community in light of COVID-19, and digital business is certainly a part of that.”

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