As one of my PTC colleagues put it this week, “If ever there was an ‘Avengers Assemble!’ of engineers, this is it.”
It’s absolutely true.
As the daily media barrage continuously reminds us, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed numerous problems that existed well before the outbreak. America and much of the world were unprepared for an unprecedented pandemic of this magnitude, leaving hospitals with a massive shortage of ventilators, protective masks, gloves and gowns. No story sums up this dire situation more than the nurses at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai West hospital draping themselves in 33-gallon trash bags when there were no more protective gowns.
But some of the world’s biggest companies are now stepping up to address the shortages, quickly retooling their factories to manufacture medical supplies or assigning their engineering teams to create new solutions from scratch.
A few notable examples include:
- Dyson, the company best known for its vacuum cleaners and commercial hand dryers, designed and built their own ventilator in just 10 days after being recruited by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The company has committed to manufacturing 10,000 for British hospitals and 5,000 more to export where they are needed.
- GM is retooling its Indiana auto components plant to produce up to 10,000 ventilators per month, and is reopening its closed transmissions plant in Michigan to make surgical masks.
- Ford has teamed with GE and 3M to use stock car parts to redesign 3M’s Powered Air-Purifying Respirators, which are used by first responders. The upgraded respirators will be manufactured by auto workers in Michigan.
- Fanatics, the manufacturer of the official player uniforms for Major League Baseball, has temporarily converted its Pennsylvania facility to make medical masks and gowns. In the first batch, fabric used for Yankees pinstriped uniforms will be used for gear going to New York and New Jersey hospitals, while Phillies material will be used to make gear for Pennsylvania medical professionals.
- Bauer, the hockey equipment provider for the NHL, is now manufacturing single-use medical face shields out of material originally earmarked for helmets and protective gear. Resembling a welder’s shield, the devices are meant to protect first responders’ eyes and still require breathing masks underneath. The company has asked other corporations to step up and convert their factories for anti-coronavirus efforts, too.
- Gap Inc, Hanes, New Balance and Nordstrom are all retrofitting some of their clothing factories to make medical face masks.
- Pernod Ricard, the maker of Absolut Vodka and Jameson Whiskey, announced it would use its worldwide distilleries to produce mass volumes of hand sanitizer. Ditto for Anheuser-Busch. French fashion conglomerate LVMH, parent company of Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, said it would use its cosmetic factories to make hand sanitizer as well.
Many of the companies mentioned above have declared that they are donating their products or distributing them at cost. But it’s not only household brands that are contributing to COVID-19 response efforts. Medium-sized and small businesses are stepping up, too.
Mirroring the parent company of Absolut Vodka, numerous craft distilleries across America are pivoting to produce hand sanitizer for their local police, firefighters, and ambulances. Brad Plummer, a spokesperson for the American Distilling Institute, told The New York Times that many of the small factories are having trouble sourcing enough plastic containers to package the ad-hoc sanitizer. Many participating distilleries are asking the public to bring their own bottles.
Rich Brilliant Willing, a Brooklyn-based manufacturer of decorative LED lighting, has retooled its facilities in New York and New Jersey to make 14,000 face shields for first responders and medical personnel.
The company contributed to a new design of the Budmen face shield, pictured above, that reduces the material by 48 percent. This design improvement will now enable manufacturers to produce twice as many face shields using the same resources.
PTC/Onshape Teams Up With Boston Hospitals
One of the biggest challenges facing medical professionals and first responders in the COVID-19 pandemic is that most masks and face shields are single-use and are disposable. There have been many reports of doctors being asked to reuse coronavirus face masks because of the shortage.
MasksOn.org, a nonprofit collaborative project mobilizing top talent in medicine, technology and academia, is designing and building safe, durable, reusable and sanitizable medical protective personal equipment (PPE) for hospitals.
The first innovation was designing, testing and 3D-printing an air-tight adaptor to connect full-face snorkel masks to breathing filters already being used in hospitals. The 17th floor of PTC’s Boston headquarters, the Customer Experience Center (CXC), has been transformed into a factory for these snorkel mask adaptors. Mechanical, software and quality assurance engineers from Onshape, Vuforia and across PTC, have been collaborating with engineers from Google, Formlabs, Origin.io and Verily, to iterate quickly.
According to the MasksOn.org GoFundMe page, the goal is to produce 12,500 masks for healthcare workers in days, not weeks. The organization says that 12,500 durable masks is equivalent to 1 million “Provider Protected Days,” which can improve care for 10 million people.
On the medical side, the project is supported by Brigham & Women’s, Beth Israel Lahey Health, Mass General, NewYork-Presbyterian, and Tufts Medical Center. University research support is coming from Harvard, MIT, Princeton, UCSF, UT Dallas, Yale and other institutions.
Open-Source Designs & 3D Printing
New collaborative open-source COVID-19 response projects have recently been launched, allowing engineers not affiliated with corporate projects to contribute to the global effort.
Some notable open-source projects include:
- The Pandemic Ventilator Project – Aiming to build a simple and robust open-source library of ventilator designs that anyone in ventilator-deficient communities can source and build locally, either in industrial manufacturing facilities or by hand. The project will provide engineering, technical, and supply chain support to get designs off the screen and into hospitals.
- Open Source Ventilator Ireland – Building a Field Emergency Ventilator (FEV) in collaboration with the Irish Health Service. Will include other design challenges as they arise from frontline healthcare workers.
- The Ennomotive Challenge – Seeking to develop low-cost, easy-to-build ICU ventilators through the adaptation of standard industrial components or through other everyday-life objects whose availability is fast, easy and universal.
The number of these well-meaning COVID-19 engineering projects continues to expand and is difficult to track. To help support these efforts, PTC is offering free use of its Onshape product development platform for qualifying projects. Onshape’s online CAD, data management and collaboration tools were built for remote teams working in different locations. It’s possible to equip design teams of any size (1-1000 contributors) instantly worldwide on any device.
Free time-limited subscriptions to Onshape will be considered for projects that:
- Provide a solution contributing to the treatment or research of COVID-19
- Address a coronavirus-related problem impacting a community
- Make their product design open-source (public) for the greater good
- Are not created for profit
If you’d like to partner with Onshape on a qualifying project, please get in touch with us here.
During the pandemic, PTC is also offering free use of Vuforia Chalk, a productivity app that leverages augmented reality to enable offsite and on-site employees for collaborative operation, maintenance, and repair products of all kinds. It’s like a more powerful Facetime for industrial settings and it’s as easy to set up and use. For more details, click here.
For the challenge of designing and building prototypes quickly, 3D-printing technology is invaluable – and the entire additive manufacturing industry is rallying right now to speed up new solutions. Stratasys, Markforged, Formlabs, and Desktop Metal all are actively involved in COVID-19 initiatives.
In addition, 3D printer users – even at the high school level – are pooling their resources to contribute to local small-batch manufacturing of personal protection products.
Mark Lyons, a senior education strategist for AET Labs, is reaching out to New England’s vocational schools to 3D print face shields designed by Medtronic. To date, he has more than 25 schools participating.
Low-Tech Solutions Playing a Role, Too
All across America, women and men handy with needles and thread are now sewing homemade surgical face masks to donate to local hospitals. Homemade masks are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only as a “last resort” and ideally used along with a face shield.
However, widespread shortages of medical-grade face masks have prompted hospitals to request the home-sewn masks as a contingency for having no safeguards at all.
Carrie Sullivan, a senior analyst at Onshape/PTC, has been making masks for her hometown Southern New Hampshire Medical Center. For fabric, SNHMC gave her surplus t-shirts that celebrated the hospital being named one of the “2018 Best Companies to Work for in NH.”
“I wish I could be buying real masks for the hospitals instead,” Sullivan says. “But this will do. I am just happy to be doing something.”
Efforts like Sullivan’s, the snorkeling mask adaptors, and the high school student crowdsourcing may be unnecessary when big industry solutions eventually come into play. However, perhaps all the projects and innovations forced by COVID-19 will have a lingering impact. Maybe more of us will want to keep learning new skills when the crisis is over.