It has been an extremely turbulent but rewarding few years to be a PPE manufacturer, explains Madan Natarajan, General Manager and Director at glove specialist, ASAP Innovations
In the eye of the COVID-19 storm, Madan Natarajan, General Manager and Director of Malaysia-based glove specialist talks to Sophie Bullimore about all things pandemic and why supply chain management was the name of the game.
Coming from an engineering background, Madan is well acquainted with a lot of the industries that use gloves. He talks of his experience with pride, saying that it helped him enormously.
He also explains that, from a knowledge perspective, 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 becomes his most valued asset when he puts himself in his customers’ shoes.
Like many people, Madan has his favourite industries … and those that are not so enjoyable. “I loved working on the aviation supply chain,” he says: “It was fast-paced and with great variety. I had a lot of autonomy in terms of 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.”
Nowadays, however, Madan takes on many managerial duties, which range from planning and sales team management to quality escalations and compliance. His move from engineering to general management was not a direct one, having worked in supply chain management for a fair time before using it as a stepping stone in his career.
This extended stint seems to have provided one of the Madan’s take-one messages: “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 and don’t leave them until it’s too late,” advises Madan. This seems to be a lesson that might go straight out the window during a pandemic, however, when everyone was playing catch up from the moment it started.
Talking about those early pandemic days, the conversation feels like hearing old war stories; topics such as rations, border problems and shortages of high-demand items all feature.
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 ones in Malaysia.
But these supply chain issues are exactly what Madan specialises in; talking about the company’s initial reaction, he notes that the main priority was (and still is) getting stock to customers.
“We ensured, first, that they were aware of all the issues and how stock might 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.”
Gloves are a critical component in the fight against a virus as they act as a barrier. As with any critical PPE though, it’s vital that the gloves are of high quality and certified to the relevant standards.
And this is where Madan really believes 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. Certification documentation was faked or simply not included. This particularly affected the NHS (UK’s National Health Service) as they were spending billions of pounds on PPE … only to find that the gloves were not suitable.”
Selling counterfeit PPE goods was a trend that spiked in the early days of the pandemic and, as a result, many were sentenced to jail and forced to pay damages as a consequence. But, aside from the illegal activities, legitimate businesses were encountering their own urgent situations.
“There was an unprecedented spike in demand for PPE when the pandemic began; in response, we had to get our operations under control and take strategic business decisions — such as allocations programmes — to ensure that we were doing our best to meet them,” Madan explains.
He adds that this spike in demand had a huge influence on their decisions as a company, and his supply chain experience was invaluable. “This demand surge meant that 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 significant changes, including investment in staff, premises and the supply chain.”
Greater demand means increased supply and, in no uncertain terms, glove manufacturing competition went through the roof! “There are a lot more glove manufacturers and glove brands that have come into the market since the pandemic began, which means that there’s a lot more competition,” Madan 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, Madan is heavily invested in the technical aspects of both the glove itself and its supply chain. He says that it’s 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 affect the reputation of the company, so needs to be considered carefully.
Madan asserts that, aside from safety, sustainability is a hot topic for glove manufacturers. They are the single biggest cleanroom consumable and, as such, the manufacturing process can come under tight scrutiny.
He explains that although working towards biodegradable products is a must, the packaging is something that often goes overlooked. “Cutting down on carton and box packaging to make it more compact and efficient, alongside biodegradable packaging, can be the best solution.”
For the actual manufacturing process, glove production is no exception to the need to become more environmentally friendly. Madan says that introducing renewable energy sources such as plant powered by biomass (that uses less water, for example), are good options for the industry.
He also talks about ISO 14001, which is an internationally agreed standard that sets out the requirements for an environmental management system. “It helps organisations to improve their environmental performance by reducing waste and using resources more efficiently,” he says.
A lot of ASAP’s recent activity has been focused in the UK. With Brexit causing regulatory upheaval and a new cleanroom glove range launch at the recent Cleanroom Technology Conference in Birmingham, UK, the company has been busy.
And, although, CE markings will still be recognised in certain countries until summer 2023, Madan 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 Madan is keen to stay on top of them.
In addition, further new products are in the pipeline, such as a chemical-resistant glove that will provide excellent splash resistance against harmful substances. Another project that ASAP is working on is a glove designed for use in chemotherapy treatment. "In short, there’s a lot going on!" says Madan.
What’s more, a novel packaging and shipping innovation to meet the increasing global demand for gloves in development. ASAP is now offering direct shipping from factory containers, which is done to deliver the best possible value. “Logistical innovations can have huge benefits to businesses, without requiring a huge investment,” notes Madan: “I’m 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,” Madan says.
“Each role is as important as the next to ensure that 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.