December 7, 2020

2020: Agile Sourcing, Swift Pivots Helped Industry Fight COVID-19 Pandemic

By Steve Konick

2020 started off innocently enough. It began with quip-filled marketing pitches by companies touting their 2020 Vision. We all know what happened next. Most of the world was struck by a once-in-a-century pandemic, accompanied by a massive global financial downturn.

As the year closes, we can see how flexible and strategic sourcing and a fast, broad pivot by our manufacturing industry significantly contributed to the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak.

On the supply chain front, the pandemic had a domino effect on all things social and economic, leaving some companies scrambling to find parts to make their products.

Injection-molded face shields
Face shields and frames were big this year and in short supply. We partnered with Nidec Motor Corporation to expedite the manufacture of 1,000 molded, reusable face shields in just one day. These were donated to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 to frontline healthcare workers.

On the pivot side of things, companies joined forces to help the fight, even if they weren’t necessarily medical supply companies. Like wartime production during World War II, companies in 2020 turned their attention toward beating the enemy, only this time the enemy was unseen. For many businesses affected by the pandemic, digital manufacturing—rapid prototyping and on-demand production through an entirely digital thread—enabled them to navigate this turbulent economic environment.

At Protolabs, we were proud to help out on both fronts, serving as a go-to manufacturing supplier and also teaming up with companies to help them make those swift pivots.

New Strategies for Sourcing Parts

COVID-19 and the political and economic fallout from it created a terrifying confluence of events that affected supply chains throughout the world. As Chinese manufacturers shuttered operations to prevent further spread of the virus, companies in the U.S. that relied on them were forced to re-examine their own supply chains.

For many businesses in 2020, difficulties began in March and April when labor shortages and trade wars constrained supplies from abroad. North American businesses sometimes look overseas to source parts for their products. Pricing is sometimes cheaper from manufacturers across the Pacific, especially China. The downside? Because teleportation hasn’t been invented yet, the parts take a long time to reach the States. Once here, the parts sometimes face delays in customs and are subject to political gamesmanship, with tariffs increasing the cost of parts. Beyond that, if you receive a bad batch of parts or need to make changes to your design, you might have to wait months for replacements.

Businesses will remember 2020 as being the year that they realized the importance of having a backup plan. That was the situation facing FOAMit, which discovered that their Chinese suppliers couldn’t help when the company needed a quick-turn retrofit for two products that had suddenly become their best sellers. The spray nozzles on FOAMit’s mist/fog disinfecting units were getting damaged by customers that were forced to work more quickly to sterilize workspaces. Onshoring parts (sourcing domestically) by using our rapid-turn, on-demand manufacturing for molded parts proved the solution. While the parts cost somewhat more than the imported versions, FOAMit was able to go from design to in-hand parts in less than a week, yielding a lot of happy customers during exceptionally difficult times.

Molded face mask
Minnesota-based Breathe99 not only won Protolabs’ Cool Idea Award for its B2 molded plastic face mask, but the product was also named one of the best inventions of the year by Time Magazine.

Right Product, Right Time, Sustainability

Other companies ramped up production on planned health-related products. Breathe99 found itself in the position of having a product in development that was ready to satisfy a huge need. The company’s B2 mask combined the safety of near-N95 quality filtration with another 2020 trend, sustainability. Breathe99’s molded plastic face mask filters out about 99% of common contaminants employing a mask design and materials that are reusable. Typical respiratory masks used by medical professionals create considerable amounts of non-recyclable waste, augmented by the need to change them before seeing each patient. With the B2, only the filters are tossed after a period of use. At Protolabs, we awarded Breathe99 a Cool Idea Award just as COVID-19 started to ramp up as a health issue in the U.S., assisting the company with design analysis/feedback and getting it ready for mass production after a highly successful Kickstarter campaign.

The product was also named one of the best inventions of 2020 by Time Magazine.

Corporate Pivots Caused by COVID-19

Early in the spring, governmental and medical organizations realized that there was a massive national shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and life-saving ventilators. In response, many companies around the world pitched in to help protect first responders and medical teams as they battled this extremely infectious disease. At Protolabs, we further shifted our focus almost immediately, prioritizing the manufacturing and expediting the delivery of COVID-related parts.

Some companies designed and funded components and products that were outside of their typical business areas. Zverse, a Protolabs partner that offers CAD as a Service (CADaaS), designed frames for face shields. Working with our on-demand manufacturing, hundreds of thousands of headbands for those face shields were injection molded quickly and placed into service.

Molded part for Instant-Trace product
Workplaces endured massive changes this year, and some construction jobsites make it difficult to maintain social distancing. Enter Triax Technologies Proximity Trace, which provides distancing alerts and contact tracing in the workplace. Triax deployed our injection molding service to make this part that fits into the end product.

Many businesses pivoted to become suppliers of face shield components to serve their communities. We worked with Michelin in Europe, and, in the U.S., with Nidec Motor Company, OptoGlo, and Tessy Plastics, to manufacture this vital PPE.

Companies such as Luminex and Luminostics worked with us to produce vital parts for testing equipment. At the same time, Ventec used our 3D printing service to produce a single part crucial to make that company’s ventilators function properly during exhalations, eliminating the need to create multiple parts.

Husco Automotive designed a mask to help first responders and medical professionals in the Milwaukee area, and even got help testing it from Protolabs team members.

The Cleveland Clinic, another Protolabs partner, created an ingenious way to keep IV tubes aloft, allowing hospital staff to keep IVs flowing from outside a patient’s room. Its High-Line helps keep staff safe, avoiding direct contact with the extremely contagious virus. It also lessened the burden on PPE stocks, which were limited at times.

Triax Technologies found a new use for its Proximity Trace and TraceTag jobsite monitoring system. These are typically used to manage safety, risk, and employee efficiency, but have been repurposed as a contract tracing tool to help determine the spread of COVID in workplaces.

Going Forward: Shifting Realities and Priorities

As 2020 finally ends, there have been some big takeaways learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. One is that when companies prepare to be flexible, they can more easily pivot and keep afloat in uncertain economic times. Second, even as they protect their own businesses, companies can find opportunities to use their expertise to help their communities and pitch in for a greater cause—in this case a public health crisis—even outside of their own specialty area.