After COVID-19, the supply chain will never be the same. And that's ok.

by Avi Reichental

These are days of despair and hope, of calmness and panic, of isolation and connection. The event of COVID-19 — an event unlike anything the world has seen in at least a generation, if not longer — has upended our ways of life, revealed the true nature of our societal fabric and forced humanity, each and every one of us, to reconsider what it means to be part of a community and a member of a tribe.

These are also days when the strain on our supply chain is pushing us toward a crisis, and the private sector is being called upon to contribute heroics in order to get us through. In the coming days, months and even years, the impact of these hours will have a ripple effect. We don’t yet know how drastic that ripple will be, but one thing is clear: The supply chain as we know it will never be the same, and its evolution will have been spurred by the most extreme of times.

There is perhaps no story which better encapsulates the extraordinary juncture in time in which we find ourselves than that of Cristian Fracassi and Alessandro Ramaioli, who used their 3-D printing skills to print ventilator valves, a key piece of the ventilator machine that is ordinarily priced at around $11,000. They did it for $1 a piece, and in turn saved at least a dozen Italian lives, if not more.

This is a rosy story, one which brought us all hope and comfort when we first read it from the loneliness of our own self-quarantined situations. But then came the story’s second act: The company that owns the patent to the valves is threatening to sue the duo for patent infringement.

So what does all of this mean for the 3-D printing community, for our ethical and moral roles under such an unprecedented global pandemic and for the very thorny issues of intellectual property, creative gains and the specific imperatives to act and react in times of legitimate worldwide crisis?

The answer is complicated. When it comes to the field of additive manufacturing, I believe there has never been a more urgent call to action than this very moment we are in. If there ever was a time in history that bright minds and innovative technology could be harnessed to help cope and even thrive through a global pandemic, this is it.

This, of course, was the motivation behind Fracassi and Ramaioli’s altruistic act.

But responsibilities do not exist in a vacuum. We all also must consider the companies that have trained and employed us, the safety and well-being of our coworkers and superiors, and  the precedents that will be set regarding intellectual property when the blood, sweat and tears behind innovation are wiped away in the name of a greater good or an urgent moment in time. There is also the fine balance between answering an urgent need to save lives and making sure to maintain safety standards as there is no time for safety certification.

These questions and many more are sure to arise as we face the reality that our supply chain is strained and in some areas completely out of service due to the pandemic. We must ask ourselves how we can be of help at this moment in time and also map out the ways in which the supply chain should and shouldn’t be changed and challenged once we get past this particular crisis. 

At Materialise, they came up with a solution to address COVID-19 transmission in public places — a hands-free door handle attachment, which they’ve released the files for, so that any company or individual with a  3D printer can produce them, while our own team at ParaMatters is encouraging the 3D printing community to come up with creative solutions and opening its Basic CogniCAD accounts to enable design and development of parts.

All of us working today in traditional and additive manufacturing must think of ourselves not as rival companies or separate entities, but members of a specific, unique field, one which endows us with phenomenal know-how and unique tools. These can allow us to step up and serve the greater good immediately. 

The COVID-19 crisis is still in its infancy. In the weeks that come, our first responders and medical health providers will only be able to provide the frontline medical treatment that they trained for if they are supported by an army of engineers and supply-workers who clear the path for their critical roles. And the same goes for a slew of other industries hit by supply chain issues, including automotive. 

I don’t use the term “army” lightly. Each and every member of the human family will be better served and better protected if they start to think of COVID-19 as a wartime situation. There is a common enemy here, and its presence is frightening. But with common enemies come calls toward the common good. Let us all unite against the enemy of this virus so that we can combine our resources, our technology and our intellectual property as allied members of the same team.

This is where the pitfall existed for our Italian Robin Hoods. They wanted to do the right thing, but the makers of the patent for the valves saw them as the enemy, rather than the virus itself. This is short-sighted, old-fashioned thinking, and I predict that when this virus is beyond us we will find, in the trail of its destruction, several ashes of our former society that will have died along with its victims.

COVID-19 is a perfect storm. Once it passes, we will see not an ordinary recovery back to the status quo but an evolution that matches, in magnitude, the force of what we are now facing. There will be no business as usual once this virus is beyond us. And that’s why, in the midst of everything, I’m hopeful. 

3D printing allows us to produce almost anything, very quickly. Complexity is free, and the response can be nearly instant. I’m optimistic that, if the community of tinkerers and enthusiasts band together along with the support of the professional additive community, we can head into this new normal and emerge from it a stronger, healthier and more united society than ever before. This crisis is going to change our supply chain for good. And that’s ok, because evolution is how we grow stronger. The key is to remember our common goals so that we bend rather than break.

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