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Thursday, February 29, 2024

When Government Fails, Makers Come to the Rescue

As the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the US, Isaac Budmen and Stephanie Keefe watched closely. They knew what we all did: Protective equipment for health care workers—like those solid-gold N95 masks—were in perilously short supply. Hell, the CDC itself had recommended that, in a pinch, nurses use ­bandanas. They also knew that in Syracuse, New York, close to where they lived, a Covid-19 testing facility had just opened. They decided to help. Budmen and Keefe are the founders of Budmen Industries, which makes 3D printers for architects and artists. They set about designing a “face shield”—a visor with a plastic sheet attached, like a see-through welder's helmet. It's only one small piece of protective gear, but a useful one.

On the evening of Saturday, March 14, Budmen and Keefe got to work. Their first prototype failed: The fit was too tight, and attaching the plastic was too difficult. By 9 pm the following night, though, they had success. “We tried it on, it felt good, we whipped our heads around trying to make the thing fall off,” Budmen says. They printed a batch and brought them to the county executive's office. We need as many as you can make, emergency managers told him.

A local newspaper picked up on it, and demand exploded. “We had hundreds of requests—Hey, I'm a nurse, we need these,” Budmen says. Crucially, supply exploded too. They had put their design up on their website, and within days more than 500 people with 3D printers began downloading it to print the visors for their own areas. Budmen and Keefe had kick-started an ad hoc, globally distributed factory producing on-demand protection gear.

For years, the “maker” movement has been encouraging people to try their hand at engineering, building, and crafting. It has produced a welter of quirky hobbyist projects. (Guilty!) But as a quiet side effect, it has also built a latent network of nerds who are very useful in a crisis. And it shows us something—equal parts inspiring and dispiriting—about our state of disaster preparedness.

The good news is that ordinary people are coming to the rescue. When it became apparent that there were not nearly enough N95 masks, for example, sewing hobbyists instantly networked online to coordinate DIY mask-making. Elizabeth Preston, who runs a small quilting business in Orlando, Florida, adapted a simple mask pattern she found on a Facebook group to allow the wearer to insert their own piece of N95 filter material. Within a day, Preston had sewn 20 masks; requests from local health care workers flooded into her Next­door account.

“There's a helplessness that you feel” in the crisis, Preston told me. “It's like, at least I can do something.”

I wondered if health care folks would scoff at hand-sewn masks. Nope: “Obviously it's not perfect, but it's better than nothing,” as Janelle, a home health care nurse, told me. Her sister had scooped up masks for her from Preston's porch. “I just so appreciate the way that my community has kind of rallied around me.” By mid-March, some hospitals were actively asking for DIY masks; some nurses figured they could use handcrafted masks for non-Covid-19 patients, allowing them to save their precious N95s for the pandemic.


Hackers have also helped extend the lives of ventilators. In Italy, when a manufacturer couldn't produce replacement parts fast enough, a team of engineers used their 3D printer to make them. In the US, a group called CoVent-19 Challenge is trying to design a simple open-source ventilator that could pass FDA regulations. As of March, more than 1,200 designers worldwide had volunteered to contribute ideas.

“People jump in with both feet,” marvels Joyce Arbucias, a Florida woman whose Facebook mask-making group mushroomed overnight. Yet it's also a searing indictment of federal leadership. It was the US government's job to prepare for a pandemic, including plans for supply-chain choke points. It didn't. “Let's not fool ourselves. What we are doing is a stopgap,” Arbucias says. She's hoping that by the time you read this, N95s are widely available. (“I hope I never have to sew a mask again.”)

It also shows a failure of capitalism. Part of the reason we're short on essential medtech is closed-source designs, often created to maximize vendor profits, says Canadian doctor Tarek Loubani. His project, Glia, has designed basic open-source tourniquets and stethoscopes that can be 3D-printed cheaply anywhere. “These things should be commodities,” he notes.

Open-source makers, he argues, can produce solutions that rival those of the market­place. Loubani's 3D-printed stethoscopes, for example, have been published in a peer-­reviewed journal.

He's got a point. The new corona­virus has shown that our traditional ways of doing business in medical tech can fail epically in a crisis. We need to think hard about what regulations and incentives could ensure a truly innovative and resilient market. For now, though, thank the everyday tinkerers who did what they could.

Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99) is a WIRED contributing editor. Write to him at clive@clivethompson.net.

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