How medical device manufacturing rose to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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COVID-19 forced dramatic innovations in healthcare technology, both within the hospital walls and beyond.

Healthcare, like other industries, is still contending with shortages in key resources, including equipment, supplies, staff, medications, and specialty devices. Demands on medical manufacturing have skyrocketed, and factories and distributors struggle to keep pace, partly due to labor shortages and pandemic-related safety protocols that have impacted productivity.

Tracking of goods throughout the supply chain—from raw materials and manufacturing equipment to finished products such as masks, ventilators, and vaccines—has become critical for medical manufacturers to meet the needs of the industry for the delivery of quality care.

In response, many factories adopted smart technologies, including robotics, internet of things (IoT) devices, and other automation enabled by 5G connectivity to speed production, boost efficiency and create safer work environments. Those changes are here to stay as factories recognize the need for progressive resilience in their operations. One study predicts a $214 billion global smart factory market by 2026, up from $140 billion in 2020.

Fast problems, fast solutions.

COVID-19 threw patients and the entire healthcare ecosystem into disarray, spreading more than 600 million infections worldwide with over 6 million deaths since January 2020.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) for caregivers, such as medical-grade N-95 masks, quickly became in short supply. With factories unable to keep pace with demand, medical professionals faced unavoidable exposure to the virus. Hospitals quickly ran out of rooms for patients, and necessary medical equipment vital to patient care was in short supply.

The biopharma industry reacted with a swift and unprecedented response as the need for COVID-19 vaccines became evident. Between 2020 and 2021, vaccine production for coronavirus went from zero to more than 11 billion doses, according to data from the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers’ Network (DCVMN), and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA).

Up first: vaccines.

The race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine epitomized a single industry's lightning-quick, large-scale (and successful) agility. This story also represents an extraordinary collaboration between the public and private sectors to protect the health of the population.

The mRNA technology at the foundation of the first U.S. vaccines had been in development for decades before COVID-19. Due to the time needed to create a novel vaccine, drug companies evaluated existing vaccine solutions for efficacy against the novel COVID-19 virus. This research and development effort to identify and produce effective vaccines was made at a record pace. Wireless technology played a key role in the effort's success, enabling producers to automate production processes, digitize data flows, monitor vaccine temperatures, track distribution, and more.

Find out about smart services that can help deliver better patient care.

Smart Manufacturing for Medical Devices

The economic impact of the pandemic, including labor shortages and plant closures, challenges the supply chain even today, affecting the availability of basic supplies, including PPE. As a result, manufacturers increased their investments in smart manufacturing technologies, including:

  • Sensor-driven automation (IoT)
  • Robotics
  • Digital twins—or virtual copies of equipment, production lines, or entire factories—that enable remote maintenance of the entire production process using virtual and augmented reality

But for these factories to optimize productivity, they need to be able to quickly and adeptly process, analyze and act on large streams of data. They need 5G connectivity, whether low-, mid-, or high-band. T-Mobile has these network assets and can use them to meet each customer's unique needs, such as those needed to operate a smart factory with massive machine infrastructure.

"Leading healthcare organizations are leveraging emerging technologies to improve workflows that extend the reach and impact of their employees," says Dr. Christine Gall, Head of Healthcare Marketing at T-Mobile.

The factories of the future envisioned by medical device manufacturing executive’s pre-pandemic have become today's reality, and this rapid growth in innovation is expected to continue. Investments in IoT and digital twins are projected to grow by more than 30% annually through 2030.

The use of IoT and robotics allow these leading medical device manufacturing systems to:

  • Nimbly alter production to keep pace with changes in demand
  • Detect routine wear and tear that signal the need for machine maintenance to prevent production stoppages proactively
  • Improve safety by reducing the number of people needed to execute high-risk tasks
  • Update software and perform repairs remotely
  • Automate workflows
  • Control costs
  • Standardize processes and quality control
  • Improve compliance with regulations and industry standards 

Using technology to perform many of the routine, repetitive tasks industry workers historically conducted frees those employees to leverage their expertise to create new products that address customers' and clients' needs.

Continued innovation in the healthcare industry.

The pandemic was the catalyst for many of these breakthroughs. 5G network advancements will power the future rate of adoption and scale of these innovative technologies to achieve optimal impact on patient care.

T-Mobile is at the forefront of the smart medical device manufacturing technology transformation. For a more in-depth look, visit our 5GHQ Hub for Healthcare

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