June 3, 2023

Supply chain problems? Drone delivery could provide a fix

supply chain problems drone delivery could provide a

Supply chain has been one of the fastest-growing words in the lexicon in terms of usage since the onset of the pandemic, and not necessarily for good reason.

Supply chain problems have upended all sorts of industries. Many have blamed global supply chain shakeups for the recent bout of crushing inflation. Supply chain issues especially hurt small businesses, which don’t have leverage over suppliers that bigger companies do to get essentials delivered. And it’s not just a matter of not getting products stocked on store shelves. Supply chain challenges are disrupting hospitals’ abilities to get necessary medicines and equipment, and even supply chain issues even hurt hotels.

But one recent study suggests that drones could hold the key in improving supply chain problems. The study was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted by IDinsight, which describes itself as a mission-driven global advisory, data analytics, and research organization.

The study didn’t focus on the hot use cases you frequently hear of these day though, like getting your Walmart orders sent to your backyard via drone. Instead, it honed in on deliveries executed by Zipline, which is the world’s biggest drone delivery company, which primarily conducts deliveries of emergency medical supplies to developing countries.

Photo courtesy of Zipline.

The report aimed to shows the impact of Zipline’s instant logistics system on Ghana’s health system. Zipline has been working closely with the Government of Ghana since 2019 and today operates at a national scale. Zipline says its drones serve more than 15 million people via its six distribution centers (soon to be eight later this year).

The study specifically analyzed health facilities served by three of Zipline’s distribution centers in Ghana. The tl;dr? It found that “Zipline meaningfully contributes to the Ghanaian government’s work to expand healthcare across the country, with a statistically significant impact on inventory availability and supply chain performance.”

Zipline supply chain return drone delivery
Photo courtesy of Zipline.

Here were some standout nuggets from IDinsight’s supply chain report:

Drone delivery…

  • Shortened vaccine stockouts (meaning situations where vaccines were out of stock) by 60%.
  • Decreased inventory-driven missed vaccination opportunities by 42%.
  • Decreased days facilities were without critical medical supplies by 21%.
  • Increased the types of medicines and supplies stocked at health facilities by 10%.

Many Americans experienced the early 2021 frenzy to get their hands on a COVID-19 vaccine, which rapidly went out of stock. But vaccines going out of stock is a common occurrence, pandemic or not. In fact, one in every three World Health Organization Member States experiences at least one stockout of at least one vaccine for at least one month out of the year on average. That said, stockouts are more common in developing countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa — where 38% of countries in this area of the world report national-level stockouts. 

“These inventory challenges can make it more difficult for patients to receive vaccinations, contributing to already-declining immunization coverage worldwide that leaves millions of people partially or completely unvaccinated,” according to a statement from Zipline. “The data demonstrates significant increases in the availability, reliability and range of inventory at health facilities by addressing supply chain challenges like lack of visibility, uncertain demand forecasting and shipment delays.”

While this study hones in on the medical industry, its results suggest that supply chain problems in other industries could be alleviated with drones. One comforting statistic in particular? Happiness.

Healthcare workers in Zipline facilities expressed an overall positive perception regarding Zipline, and were more satisfied with the availability of medical products than healthcare workers in control facilities, the report found. It remains to be seem if waiters, postal workers or warehouse employees might be happier if drones could support them, but early data suggests that drones bring better workplace satisfaction, which could in turn reduce other supply chain-related challenges including labor shortages.

supply chain problems drone delivery could provide a
Photo courtesy of Zipline.

Zipline, COVID and its growth in the U.S. and abroad

Zipline says its drones have made more than 275,000 commercial deliveries, in both developing countries as well as in the U.S. through a partnership with Magellan Rx Management to deliver prescription medications via drones to patients’ homes in North Carolina. In aggregate, Zipline drones have flown 13 million miles and have delivered more than five million doses of vaccines, as well as other essential medical supplies including blood and medicines.

Those 5 million vaccines include, yes, COVID-19 vaccines.

“Over the past few years, we’ve made huge strides toward getting people the care they need, when and where they need it,” said Ghana’s Minister of Health, Hon. Kwaku Agyeman-Manu. “And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were prepared to rapidly and equitably deliver vaccines to Ghanaians everywhere.”

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