As the reality of the COVID-19 threat set in late this winter, companies that had the means immediately looked for ways to contribute to the global fight – through volunteering, brainstorming solutions, or donating funds to the cause, all while still working to keep their businesses afloat and ensuring the safety of their teams. 

It was, and remains, an incredible challenge. But for Redwood City-based digital additive manufacturing innovator Carbon, rising to it was a no-brainer. Everything about their business seemed poised for this crisis. They specialize in industrial-scale 3D printing, and by designing and manufacturing medical face shields their design and manufacturing technology could pivot immediately in this direction. Plus, their vast networks of production customers around the world, all similarly equipped, could be enlisted to follow suit and meet local needs. Interrupted supply chains on the other side of the planet weren’t a factor. It was as though the technology and the expertise behind it were engineered to be a quick-response emergency resource.

The impetus for this aggressive repositioning came directly from the top. “Our CEO, Ellen Kullman, is always thinking three steps ahead,” says Rich Narasaki, the company’s Vice President of Brand Marketing. “She realized how serious the situation would become. Before shelter in place mandates, we encouraged employees who could work remotely to do so. At the same time, Carbon saw the critical need for personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line medical personnel. Our Executive Chairman, Joe DeSimone, led Carbon’s effort working with our internal designers and engineers to design and validate a 3D-printed face shield that our global partners could produce locally – all in just a few days.”

A more versatile alternative

Carbon’s manufacturing technology, considered a more versatile alternative to injection molding, uses a process called Digital Light Synthesis™, in which liquid resins are cured with UV light continuously and rapidly to set the shape of a part as it’s printed. A heating step then initiates a thermal cure to set a part’s properties. Using Carbon’s engineering-grade materials, the digital manufacturing process creates high-strength, precisely finished final products. It’s well suited for everything from intricately designed shoe midsoles – adidas is a major customer – to bicycle components to digitally printed dentures. The company creates the systems and the hardware, and then others can use the platform, whether through a subscription or through a Carbon Production Network partner, to do their own manufacturing.

Carbon’s digital manufacturing platform is also a valuable rapid-prototyping tool, something that helped them quickly design and validate the components for face shields. With essential feedback from Stanford University and Kaiser Hospitals in the Bay Area, they quickly zeroed in on their final design. Then they made it open-source, so anyone with an industrial-grade 3D printer could print the products for local hospitals, first-responders, and other front-line workers.

That collaboration was key on several levels. “It’s really important you bring in the right partners at the beginning,” Narasaki said. “If you have a design that hasn’t been validated by professionals who know how the products are used, you can end up running into problems. The right partnerships are absolutely critical when designing and launching a product like this so rapidly.”

The partnerships also ensured that they were indeed using their talents in the right direction – making the products that actually were needed immediately.

Maintaining the home front

At the same time, Carbon was managing a transition to remote working for most of its 400 employees. It maintained a skeleton crew of a handful in the office to operate the machines and manage the logistics of the shield distribution. But remote personnel could easily manage the donation process, run the design software, and then make changes as feedback from the initial designs came in. In short order, the on-site personnel simply started printing the final design in volume numbers, and the new products went out the door.

The face shields can be printed in stacks of ten in less than an hour, and with many production partners operating multiple printers at once, thousands can be manufactured each day across Carbon’s production network. These are partner companies whose usual clients might have reduced their orders as business slowed, freeing up the machines and allowing the manufacturers to contribute to the much-needed alleviation of supply shortages.

“Every industry is going through this crisis a little differently, and some are hurting more than others,” says Daniel Ashby, Carbon’s Director of Marketing Strategy. “So if they can continue to utilize their machines to produce a product that’s in high demand, that’s obviously a great thing. We made the conscious decision to pivot all of our own manufacturing here to produce these face shields because of the moment we’re in. It’s the right thing to do.”

Adidas also made a large donation to help fund the effort. A lattice-designed face shield was developed using the same resin material found in the adidas 4D midsole. Combining Carbon’s initial open-source design and the lattice-based design with the help of adidas, Carbon and its network of manufacturers have now produced more than 270,000 shields.

Continuing to innovate

Carbon also partnered with medical device manufacturer, Resolution Medical, to use Carbon’s lattice design technology to 3D-print nasopharyngeal swabs for COVID-19 testing. The capacity to produce millions was almost immediate. The product went from an idea, to design and clinical assessment in partnership with hospitals, to launch in just 20 days. “That speaks to the power of digital manufacturing as a whole,” Narasaki said. “When supply chains are disrupted like they are right now, you can leverage rapid design and production capabilities to manufacture locally using these techniques. It helps you respond and pivot much faster, which is always great for business when your usual customers have to adjust, as well.”

All things considered, the process overall went very smoothly, something Ashby attributes to persistent and open communication among the personnel and a universal willingness among teams to just make this happen. “We had seen our customers create products and produce them in volume in days, rather than months, and to do that ourselves really validated the whole notion. During such a challenging time, this is a major positive that we can learn from as we navigate the COVID-19 crisis. This is an important part of the future for the manufacturing industry as a whole. It demonstrates a resilience against disruption, while also providing insight into how rapid product introductions can help businesses and, most importantly, people.”

Challenge accepted: using 3D to craft PPE