3-D printing (additive manufacturing) technologies are being put to use around the world for adaptable, localized, speedy, on-demand stop-gap supply manufacture. Some of these uses are more realistic — and more helpful — than others. On-demand manufacturing absolutely has a role to play in pandemic and short supply response. Users simply need to be clear about what that role is and where it is applicable.
Let’s examine three key lessons for the additive manufacturing industry during this time.
- Centralize the mission / clarify the message
- This pandemic is not a marketing opportunity
- On-demand manufacturing needs to respond to real, not perceived, demand
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Centralize The Mission
COVID-19 has been a WHO-declared pandemic since mid-March, with the categorization escalating from prior designation as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in January. In this short period of time, it has been heartening to see the additive manufacturing (AM) industry around the world mobilize to put its technologies to use in helping.
One of the biggest issues to appear is the lack of appropriate medical supplies in hospitals. COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, requiring use of ventilators for patients with advanced cases. The lack of such equipment can mean the loss of lives in overloaded hospitals. Following the heavily publicized — and excellent — example of a FabLab in Italy 3-D printing venturi valves for respirators, many 3-D printer operators around the world sought to offer their services similarly.
While admirable in spirit, this galvanization into action quickly turned into, well, a mess.
In this age of social media and virtual connection, communities popped up across a variety of platforms to share 3-D printable designs. Valves and masks were the most common of the early appearances, building upon the success in that one use in Italy and responding to widespread mask shortages among medical personnel. But problems presented themselves just as quickly: designs weren’t always validated, suppliers weren’t familiar with medical needs, many 3-D printable mask designs simply aren’t helpful. Good designs, if any, became nearly impossible to find in the large groups as they became buried among seemingly endless comment threads.
Even when these good designs could be found — what then? Who would be making them, where were they to send them, who needed what, and where?
One large Facebook group I joined to explore the spread has, as of the time of writing, more than 51,000 members over the course of just two weeks since its formation. A common throughline in the comments has been calls for breakout groups; while 51,000 is an impressive number of people wanting to help, the downfalls quickly set in: there was no clear singular call to action, no clear leader(s) organizing efforts, no one point of contact for local needs.
When community-based efforts and crowdsourced solutions are part of a solution, the call must be clear. 3-D printing companies themselves have been increasingly clarifying their responses, and this is critical: what will they be doing, how, for whom, and when? Such centralized organization for decentralized manufacturing is imperative for those in need of immediate supply chain help.
This Pandemic Is Not Your Marketing Opportunity
It seems almost silly to point out that a pandemic is not, generally speaking, a great economic opportunity.
A deadly, relatively easily spread virus is first and foremost a human concern. Let us never lose focus on this one very important point: human lives are at stake here, on a global scale. Tens of thousands of people have already succumbed to the disease, and this only in a very few months. We’re still many months away from anything resembling a widely available vaccine or cure.
Donating PPE to medical personnel is a noble endeavor, but is not a sustainable business practice. To demand that businesses only offer their services for free is not realistic. On the whole, most people understand this.
Yes, business must continue. But it must not be built upon trumped up claims of any sort of savior complex, it must not be predicated upon a pay-to-live mentality.
Where there is pandemic, there is often panic, and it is unconscionable to capitalize on this. Panic-buying may have impacted toilet paper sales, but those sales should not be a how-to guide for companies introducing new solutions. Press releases touting solutions that prey on fear, that showcase proprietary products as (literally) can’t-live-without-it, have no place here.
Companies whose capabilities are helping — actually helping — in this time are doing work that should be publicized, largely so those communities in need are aware of the resources available. Companies using “coronavirus” in a generally unrelated press release are not presenting their best face, and can muddy the waters of actualizable aid.
The Demand For On-Demand Manufacturing
On-demand manufacturing is proving key to many supply chains right now, including 3-D printed equipment that can keep operations running.
Going along with the discussions of point one above, the 3-D printing industry has seen huge response to the need for quickly-made equipment. The caution here is to respond to actual demand.
Over the last week, more initiatives have sprung up that offer routes to regulatory approval. America Makes, for example, is working closely with the US FDA. Their most recent statement explains:
“This effort will connect the capabilities of the additive manufacturing industry with specific needs of health care providers via this online repository. This site will record necessary information from both the additive manufacturing industry and health care providers, and eventually include a pathway for designs to be uploaded for review to ensure they meet medical standards, and downloaded for use in production.”
Responses such as this provide clear illustration of the power of on-demand manufacturing. Medical equipment, even in times of crisis, must meet needs; the stakes are too high for designs that “might work.” There are times when “good enough” is good enough, and certainly there are times when immediate response can save a life. Over time, though, and as it becomes clearer this pandemic is not a situation that will resolve quickly, better solutions are evolving and becoming wider spread.
Real demand is supplanting perceived demand, and verified designs that meet fast-tracked regulatory compliance are coming more into play, demonstrating the real value of sped up supply chain response.