The COVID-19 pandemic has created a dire shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare professionals. In response, engineers, designers, researchers, and makers nationwide are applying their talents to crowdsource new solutions to this crisis.
But these groups can’t afford to work in silos. We must share key learnings so we can navigate common challenges together.
We invented a unique face shield at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and made the design files available for free online. Made entirely from a single sheet of plastic without any assembly or other materials needed, it can be rapidly mass-produced using die cutting or laser cutting and delivered to personnel in need. Currently, 80,000 face shields are being produced and distributed throughout Massachusetts on behalf of the university.
But a single solution is far from enough to meet the demand for PPE. COVID-19 is spreading like a slow-moving tsunami, creating new hotspots and localized PPE shortages throughout the U.S. As makers mobilize, streamlining their efforts is critical.
We hope these five key lessons learned from our project will give current and future projects a head start.
Join groups working on similar goals
As engineers, we typically follow a clear set of design requirements. And while such requirements for essential PPE are usually heavily regulated, these are not usual circumstances. The ongoing crisis has dictated that these design requirements can be fluid, leading to confusion among makers.
This confusion is exacerbated by disorganization and incomplete information that is rampant in the PPE maker community. Some makers thrive on disorganization, leading to a survival-of-the-fittest-ideas approach to prototyping. As a result, there are plenty of “Version 1” PPE prototypes at a time when we should unify around a single, clinically-vetted design, or at least a handful of such designs.
In the face of confusion and disorganization, local maker groups are a vital lifeline. Anyone interested in joining the crowdsourced PPE movement should follow the example set by maker community leaders such as Bill Schongar of MakeIt Labs and Tom McNulty of Autodesk. Their ability to organize large numbers of makers, source hard-to-get materials, disseminate clinical feedback, and produce clinically vetted PPE quickly—and remotely—provides a blueprint for how to successfully manage this type of group effort.
Seek input from an expert professional community
Collecting and implementing feedback from the medical community is crucial when designing PPE. But makers are being challenged by a lack of guidance regarding the medical community’s specific needs. Front-line healthcare professionals understandably don’t have time to issue formal “calls for proposals” for PPE designs.
As a result, some hospitals have received multiple prototypes of a single type of PPE, designed by the maker community with the best of intentions but without medical input. This forces healthcare professionals to spend time evaluating which options work best. In addition, having a single user continuously wear different prototypes, especially in stressful situations, can lead to improper or unsafe use of the equipment.
That’s why it’s important to streamline by seeking input from doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, and other personnel early in the prototyping process. We provided medical personnel with prototypes of our face shield design so they could provide feedback on basic requirements such as antifogging and easy removal. Providing clear instructions, proper labeling, and training documentation are also critical elements of the process.
Choose methods and materials strategically
Set a goal for your project, select the right tools for the job, and then iterate as needed.
Before beginning any design project, it’s important to choose the production method carefully. Consider how many units of your design will be needed, if it’s successful, and use “design for manufacturing” principles to adjust your design to processes that can scale to your solution. Think in terms of the number of people, machines, and parts needed to achieve your goal.
If your goal is rapid prototyping and proof-of-concept, then 3D printing might be best. In addition to PPE, there are numerous other critical supplies that makers can prototype using 3D printing, from ventilator valves to hands-free door handles. But if your goal is to mass-produce your design, consider processes such as laser cutting, die cutting, or injection molding that can manufacture at higher speeds and in larger volumes than 3D printing.
It’s also important to choose materials carefully. Certain types of PPE must be sterilizable, which narrows the options to certain types of plastic. Plus, disposable PPE must be manufactured at a low cost and in large volumes, so high-rate manufacturing processes and plentiful materials are required.
Source and use materials and resources wisely
If you have an idea for a prototype, think creatively about where you could find the necessary materials. We made our initial prototypes with items found at craft, home improvement, and office supply stores, although inventory is dwindling.
But remember that prototyping and mass production are very different things. And as large manufacturers ramp up production of critical PPE such as N95 masks at top speed, smaller manufacturing companies can help fill gaps to meet demand. During our prototyping, we spoke with several small businesses, such as printing companies, that pitched in to produce samples. Sourcing enough plastic to mass-produce face shields may also require a creative approach, such as contacting packaging companies who might have the necessary materials and tools on hand.
Most importantly, makers should use materials responsibly. Makers can quickly deplete the increasingly scarce supply of materials from retailers and suppliers. Prototyping is key, but we must do our part to make sure there is an adequate supply of materials left to produce the maker community’s best ideas.
Look ahead to leverage learnings and iterate
This current moment is defined by uncertainty. But there are a few things we do know with confidence.
First, we’re in this for the long haul. We must remain hopeful that the pandemic will eventually end. But now is the time for makers to anticipate emerging needs, such as the increasing shortage of swabs and gowns, and devise new, potentially lifesaving solutions.
Second, we need guidance from the medical community. The Food and Drug Administration recently issued guidance for 3D printing PPE, but further input is needed so the maker community can unify around PPE designs that comply with industry standards.
Third, moving forward, hospitals should consider adding engineering liaisons to their staff. Personnel who are embedded in a hospital setting can provide a clear conduit between the medical and engineering communities to identify needs and specifications.
Fourth, makers can multitask. We can release early prototypes to meet immediate needs, while simultaneously developing and refining long-term solutions that require longer lead times. The maker community should divide and conquer, not duplicate efforts.
And finally, makers must continue to organize quickly. Create subteams to coordinate with medical professionals to identify their needs, design and test prototypes, source materials, and identify manufacturing processes that can meet demand. Remember to plan for the worst and hope for the best.
Frank Sup and Meghan Huber are professors in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Dave Follette is the director of the Advanced Digital Design and Fabrication and Device Characterization core facilities at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.