In times of need, manufacturing is driven by a philosophy John Lennon said best, “There are no problems, only solutions.” Today, manufacturers have pivoted to produce the critical supplies and equipment necessary to battle COVID-19 at a rate never seen before. SME’s Humans of Manufacturing Heroes Edition tells the stories of the teams, companies and partnerships adapting to produce the tools needed to fight this global pandemic. Going behind the scenes to share how these once-in-a-lifetime transformations are happening and the people making it all possible.
What happens when a group of former schoolmates, doctors, and artisans come together amid a global pandemic? Their collaboration becomes vital to protecting those on the frontlines.
In the early stages of the global COVID-19 health crisis, there was a severe lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) worldwide. Even healthcare workers ran out of critical equipment as global supply chains strained to keep up with demand.
The situation was especially dire in Kolkata, India, the hometown of Arkadeep Kumar, PhD. Although Kumar, a technologist at the semiconductor manufacturing R&D company Applied Materials, now lives in California, he heard first-hand accounts of the devastating PPE shortages from his doctor friends back home.
“They were posting updates on social media about running out and even reusing supplies,” Kumar said. “This was personal to me. I didn't want my friends to get sick.”
At this time, plastic face shields were starting to become more popular as an added layer of protection. Face shields help increase the lifetime of masks and are typically easier to produce, leading to the mobilization of DIY hobbyists and makers desperate to help in any way they could during the pandemic.
Kumar was among this group. As an engineer, he knew he could design and manufacture something to help protect his friends and family. In March 2020, he turned to social media to find volunteers, assembling a team of engineers, professors, artisans, and doctors located across three different time zones and two continents.
“I devoted myself to thinking about how we could help people,” Kumar said. “I felt that trying to do something helpful is better than sitting still. Fortunately, my friends all believed in the same call to action.”
The team wasted no time getting to work by researching available open-source face shield designs. However, the process wasn't straightforward.
Not only did lockdowns restrict the movement of people and goods around Kolkata, but materials were limited. Many manufacturing processes, like 3D printing, weren't available in large enough numbers to meet the demand for face shields in the region, and injection molding workshops were closed.
Their goal was to make the designs simple to produce and appropriate for healthcare workers putting in long hours in India's hot and humid climate.
“We had US-based people in California and Georgia and others in India on daily video calls to brainstorm and rapidly prototype,” said Kumar. “We co-designed with the artisan in India until early morning hours in the US, and we were using whatever we could to prototype—even cereal bags.”
As the design went through several iterations, Kumar and the team sought the doctors' feedback to ensure feasibility and address any blind spots. They also consulted with the lead artisan and his assistants on simplifying the manufacturing process using available tools.
“We were trying to make do with what we had available,” Kumar said. “We raised funds and purchased plastic sheets through local contacts during lockdown. We adapted to feedback and started using soft headbands that were more comfortable to wear in the heat than 3D-printed plastic.”
By mid-April, the group's tireless efforts paid off. They had a working prototype, and the artisan and his assistants in Kolkata pivoted their skills to assemble the first batch of nearly 300 face shields. Coordinated efforts with local police meant the shields were soon delivered to nearby doctors in urgent need of PPE.
Thanks to crowdfunding initiatives and materials becoming more widely available again, the group continued improving on the design over the coming months. This evolution included sculpting the plastic to cover the wearer's forehead to help keep aerosols from entering over the top of the shield.
Soon, healthcare systems from neighboring regions wanted to purchase the team's face shields. They also received an order of 10,000 units from the local Rotary Club chapter. “We gave the designs to the state of West Bengal’s Health Department so they could start producing face shields as well,” added Kumar.
This culmination of efforts had a welcomed side effect: The face shields' production and sales have served as a new avenue of income for the artisans, whose industry was hit hard by lockdown measures and the canceling of festivals.
For Kumar, the experience also drives home the ingenuity and agility of people at a time of need: “When PPE was in short supply, it was the determination and quick re-skilling of everyone, from enthusiasts to engineers, that helped keep frontline workers safe.”