Creating a Pop-up Supply Chain for COVID19 PPE

April 19, 2020
Doctors and nurses at Willamette Falls Medical Center with their 3D printed face shields.

Note: This was also posted to LinkedIn

My day job is with Intel Corp and outside of work, I’m Founder/Organizer of the Portland 3D Printing Lab, a community of 1800 3D printing enthusiasts from all walks of life in Portland, OR. Three weeks ago, our community started 3D printing personal protective (PPE) equipment for local hospitals- primarily face shields and eye shields. In that time, we have delivered more than 5000 pieces of PPE to hospitals and partners, with another thousands more in the queue. We’ve organized 220 Makers with 380 3D printers into what I fondly call a “pop-up supply chain” under a new group called MakerForce.org. I’d like to give you a behind the scenes look at how our pop-up supply chain works. We’ll tackle it in three major parts: Intake, Production, Fulfillment.

  1. Intake is the process of gathering in orders and vetting them. We have a website where hospitals may request PPE directly. Some community members are connected to hospitals and receiving PPE requests directly from them (i.e. Legacy 1000 unit order). Lastly, we have other groups like masksfordocs.org and getusppe.org sending us leads. Any way a lead comes in, we have a small team of volunteers that vet the details – we primarily make sure the requester is authorized to order PPE and that they’re getting the right part for their needs (we have a catalog for this purpose). Once an order is verified, we can either fulfill the need from inventory (small orders under 100 units) or schedule a production job (200-5000 units). We have built a system called RAD (Rapid Assistance Database) for this purpose on AirTable (migrated from Google Sheets).
  2. Production is where the community make magic. Our production system (RAD) gives Makers autonomy to select verified units of work, 3D print them, and drop off in bins outside three local businesses. Easy from their perspective, but there is complexity they normally don’t see. Verified PPE requests are broken down into small chunks (jobs) sized to balance speed, materials use (as most makers are donating from their own stock), and community size. We don’t want the community to run out of things to produce. Since we have small operators (1-2 printers) along with print farms (10+ printers) this is a balancing act. New jobs are marked with “Available” status. Makers assign themselves by changing the status to “Claimed” and adding their name to the “Assignment.” From there, they treat each job as a mini kanban board, cycling status from “Claimed” to “Making” to “Done” to “Dropped.” In this way we can keep track of how complete production is and how fast Making takes.
  3. Production BOM– Each PPE we build is much more than it’s 3D printed parts. There are elastics, clear visors, and sometimes extra parts like pins and pads. Each PPE has its own “bill of materials” (BOM) that serves as a recipe for building the part. As we kick off Production jobs, we source other BOM parts, like the clear visors, from partners like Ctrl-H hackerspace and MC Laser. We’ve received filter material and elastics from community donations and online suppliers. We have order filament from local businesses (73kg given to date) to keep Makers running. Hiding complexities of BOM is handled by me and Connor Weller!
  4. Fulfillment is the process of gathering all the parts and sending an order out. This happens in three phases. First, volunteers gather all the 3D printed parts from the drop points and other materials from suppliers over to Brainwave computers. Here, each bag of parts is put through a rigorous cleaning process and sorted into bins by Project ID. Second, the parts are put through a QA inspection where we look for broken parts, good layer adhesion, and any missing pieces. We do see a lot of defects, but the defect rate is less than 5%, which is extraordinary given the variabilty of the 3D printing process! Last, we coordinate deliveries when we have enough parts or we are getting close to a due date. Parts are pulled from shelf, counted again, packaged (individually or in bulk) and pickup is scheduled for the recipient. We have them take some pics for us during this part. I want to underscore that this entire fulfillment process is handled by dedicated volunteers led by Mark Gibbs.
  5. The entire pop-up supply chain is powered by the new RAD system built on AirTable by a volunteer Software Development team led by Ian Lyman and Andrew Silk. They are ensuring that our build platform is not only working for our supply chain, but that it can scale to work with other communities, with a minimum of overhead. We’re not just building PPE- we’re enabling others to organize just as we did.
  6. We also have a rather amazing R&D group led by Connor Weller and Isabelle Bartter who have created a molded n95 mask and a PAPR mechanism. With some testing and some luck, we will be producing their designs soon.
  7. Last, but not least, we have a media team led by Melanie Troutman getting the word out about our efforts on social media and in online video.

With the application of lightweight process, we’ve managed to orchestrate 9000 hours – over 1 year – of 3D printer time in less than 3 weeks. We have delivered 1000 pieces of individually wrapped face shields in under 7 days (order to dropoff). Though this is a work in progress, I’ve learned a few key things.

  1. Give Makers Agency – Our process removes the hard parts (intake, sourcing, delivering) and lets Makers focus on the art and science of making solid parts. We’ve had individual makers join our group for this reason and others have individually achieved 250+ hours of print given this framework.
  2. Celebrate the Vision Regularly – This was based on an update I did in the Portland 3D Printing Lab Facebook group. Each day, we publish pictures of parts (sometimes with names visible), people wearing shields, and deliveries being made. It’s important for people to see their work put into action, to close the loop of making as soon as possible. It’s more important to give our volunteers something to share.
  3. Replace PPE/Product with Data – Channeling Tim O’Reilly’s What’s the Future – we have created something like the Uber of PPE. Makerforce owns no 3D printers or PPE, but we orchestrate a group of volunteer providers who deliver what’s needed. We’re removing friction between Maker and Hospital Worker through software and have built something that works for our community. Will it work for others? That remains to be seen.

I embarked on this project wanting to do something about the PPE crisis. It’s involved from directly printing to helping others similarly motivated to make a difference. Our vision is to create an Emergency Response Team for Makers/Manufacturers so that we can supply PPE, or whatever else is needed, until the scale supply chain can catch up. If you want to get involved, volunteer at Makerforce, donate to our GoFundMe, or help us get connected to health care workers that need PPE! I will be posting updates as the COVID PPE crisis unfolds. As always, discussion and feedback are welcome.

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