In the eye of the COVID-19 storm, the General Manager and Director of Malaysia-based glove specialist talks about all things pandemic and why supply chain management was the name of the game
It has been an extremely turbulent but rewarding few years to be a PPE manufacturer. Madan Natarajan, General Manager and Director at glove specialist, ASAP Innovations, was right in the thick of it.
Coming from an engineering background, Natarajan is well acquainted with a lot of the industries that use gloves. He talks of the time with pride, saying it helped him enormously. Natarajan explains that on a knowledge side, it makes him more quality focused, and gives him a problem-solving edge when unique situations occur. However, it seems the experience of working in such varied industries is his most valued as it helps him put himself in his customers’ shoes. This is a common theme in many who work with cleanrooms, as it reflects what it is like providing for the huge range of companies that require them.
Like many people, Natarajan has his favourite industries, and those that what not so enjoyable. “I loved working on supply chain in Aviation, it was fast-paced and with great variety. I had a lot of autonomy in decision making, which was demanding, but also rewarding. I didn’t enjoy working in food manufacturing so much as it was more controlled, and I had less freedom to take initiatives.”
Don’t get stuck in your comfort zone. It’s easy, but often fatal
Nowadays, however, Natarajan takes on many managerial duties. His duties range from planning and sales team management to quality escalations and compliance. His move from engineering to general management was not a direct move, and he worked in supply chain management for a fair time, using it as a stepping stone in his career. This work at DEX for 13 years was invaluable experience that informed Natarajan’s trajectory. This extended stint seems to have informed one of the main lessons Natarajan has learnt from his career: “don’t get stuck in your comfort zone. It’s easy, but often fatal, to avoid or resist change.”
“Take calculated risks in good time, don’t leave them until it is too late,” Natarajan says. This seems a lesson that a pandemic throws out the window. Everyone was playing catch up from the moment it started, and no sector more so than hospital PPE.
Talking about those early pandemic days, the conversation kind of feels like hearing war stories. ‘Rations’, ‘border problems’, ‘shortages of high demand items’, all measure reminiscent of times of international emergency. With glove factories based in Malaysia, factors that were huge challenges to supply were; global cargo issues, extremely high demand especially at the peak of the pandemic, outbreaks of COVID-19 in multiple parts of the world, movement control orders and extended movement control orders in Malaysia.
New glove manufacturers started to pop up all over the world
But these supply chain issues are exactly what Natarajan specialises in, and he details the company’s initial reaction, saying that the main priority was (and still is) getting stock to customers. “We ensured, firstly, that they were aware of all the issues and how stock could be affected,” he says. “We shared inventory management plans and, critically, never accepted an order that we couldn’t guarantee to fill. In this way, confidence was maintained.”
Madan Natarajan, General Manager and Director, ASAP Innovations
Gloves are a critical component in the fight against a virus as they act as a barrier. As with any critical PPE though, it is vital that the gloves are high quality and certified to the relevant standards. And this is where Natarajan really says the drama began. “As the pandemic gained pace, new glove manufacturers started to pop up all over the world, which made it very difficult for buyers as they couldn’t easily establish the credibility of the supplier or the quality of their gloves,” Natarajan explains. “Certification documentation were faked, or simply not included. This particularly affected the NHS (UK’s National Health Service), as they were spending billions on PPE only to find that gloves were not suitable.”
Selling counterfeit PPE goods was a trend that spiked in the early days of the pandemic, and many were sentenced to jail and forced to pay damages as a consequence. But aside from the illegal spectacle, legitimate businesses were encountering their own urgent situation.
“There was an unprecedented spike in demand for PPE when the pandemic began, in response to which we had to get our operations under strong control and take strategic business decisions to ensure we were doing our best to meet them; one example is allocations programmes,” Natarajan explains. He goes on to explains that this spike in demand had a huge influence on their decisions as a company, and his supply chain experience was beyond invaluable. “This spike in demand meant our UK business needed to grow fast, enhance and broaden our product offering, and find new ways to bring these to market. [We encountered] major challenges, which we met by making major changes, including investment in staff, premises and the supply chain.”
Increased demand has to mean increased supply and, in no uncertain terms, glove manufacturing competition went through the roof! “There are a lot more glove manufacturers and gloves brands that have come into the market since the pandemic began, which means there is a lot more competition,” Natarajan says. “So as a business we need to be very aware of market trends and ensure that we are one step ahead. For us, that means continually improving our current products and introducing new ones. Quality remains at the very heart of what we do, and this, ultimately, is our biggest advantage.”
Having a lot of first-hand experience, Natarajan is heavily invested in the technical aspects of both the glove itself and its supply chain. He says that it is common for the wrong glove to be used in lab settings, such as not using later or nitrile gloves when necessary. This can, of course, have ramifications not just on the operator, but also blow back on the company, so needs to be considered carefully.
Natarajan says that aside from safety, sustainability is a hot topic for glove manufacturers. They are, at the end of the day, the single biggest cleanroom consumable. As such, their manufacturing process can come under tight scrutiny. Natarajan explains that while working towards biodegradable products is a must, the packaging is something that often goes overlooked. He says that cutting down on carton and box packaging to make it more compact and efficient, alongside biodegradable packaging, can be the best solution.
We never accepted an order that we couldn’t guarantee to fill
For the actual manufacturing process, glove production is no exception to the need to reduce carbon footprint. Natarajan says that introducing renewable energy sources such as plant powered by biomass (that uses less water, for example), are good options for the industry.
Natarajan also talks about ISO 14001, which is an internationally agreed standard that sets out the requirements for an environmental management system. “It helps organisations improve their environmental performance through more efficient use of resources and reduction of waste,” says Natarajan.
A lot of ASAP’s recent activity seems to be focused in the UK. With Brexit causes regulatory upheaval and a planned cleanroom glove range launch at the Cleanroom Technology Conference in Birmingham, a lot of energy has been spent on this. Though CE markings will still be recognised in the countries until summer 2023, Natarajan has been working hard to help set up all the necessary product technical files under the new law, aiming to be one of the first to achieve this. These new rules affect manufacturers, distributors, and importers of Class I Medical Devices alike, so Natarajan is keen to stay on top of them.
Natarajan talks about some interesting new company projects; such as a new extended length vitrile glove for food manufacturing and handling. “[This was planned] for better protection against splashes,” he explains. Meanwhile, the company also has two other products in the works; one is a chemical-resistant glove, and the other is for use in chemotherapy treatment. “In short, there’s a lot going on!” Natarajan says emphatically.
However, what might be the most interesting development that Natarajan mentions is a packaging and shipping innovation that seems to suit the new higher global glove demand. This is that ASAP is now offering direct shipping from factory containers, which is done in order to help deliver the best possible value on the products. Logistical innovations can have huge benefits to businesses, without a huge investment. Natarajan is especially excited to see how this plays out.
Changes and improvements to company operations are only possible if everyone is on board. “We operate a flat structure, with everyone in the team working collaboratively across different areas,” Natarajan says. “Each role is as important as the next to ensure goals and objectives are met, and everyone is empowered to make decisions and introduce change.”
With a pandemic and demand soaring, a well-oiled machine with all the cogs working together has never been more important.