The Maker Movement vs COVID-19: How a DIY community responded to the pandemic

The availability of 3D printers, laser cutters and other digital fabrication tools has led to the rise of the Maker Movement, a growing community with a DIY approach to design and production. As the COVID-19 crisis hit the UK, these ‘makers’ sprang into action. Their response has revealed the potential for innovation among the general public — but also the limitations of an informal network and a lack of standardisation.

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Illustration by Amy Reinecke/Institute for Manufacturing

By Lucia Corsini, Valeria Dammicco, Lin Bowker-Lonnecker and Robbie Blythe

The increased availability and affordability of digital fabrication tools like 3D printers and laser cutters means that production processes previously available only to industry are now more widespread than ever. Coupled with the ability to share design files and collaborate virtually, this has led to the rise of something known as the Maker Movement.

The Maker Movement is a growing community that promotes a do-it-yourself approach to design and production, and prizes cooperative approaches to problem solving. ‘Makers’, as proponents call themselves, encourage sharing of tools, spaces and machines as well as their time, knowledge and contacts, both locally in physical workshops and globally through online platforms.

In the past, the Maker Movement has helped to tackle a number of pressing humanitarian problems, offering design improvements, helping to overcome supply chains challenges and contributing to local economic and social development. For examples, makers have collaborated globally to 3D-printed low-cost prostheses, and helped produce items to support recovery following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

Though until this year, Maker initiatives have been relatively small-scale, the growing community and knowledge base left the movement well set to respond to the global challenge of COVID-19.

Responding to COVID-19

The activities of the Maker community in response to COVID-19 have demonstrated the potential of this movement to solve pressing issues on an unprecedented scale. Since the very beginning of the pandemic, Makers have autonomously stepped in to generate a variety of ways to address the sudden healthcare crisis, by coordinating local and regional networks to provide solutions for the health sector and civil society.

These responses varied in complexity from DIY face masks to emergency ventilators, with the movement responding on both ends of the spectrum. Where the scale-up of production for items required significant time and investment to repurpose supply chains, Makers were able to quickly prototype initial designs. Where items, such as face masks, were more easily replicated, they were able to draw upon their distributed production capacity by sharing blueprints online.

While for the most part these continued to be small-scale initiatives and were not a replacement for large institutional responses, in many places they provided a critical stop-gap at early phases of the crisis response, helping to bolster the resiliency of national health systems.

The UK response

A number of these initiatives originated in the UK, where there were notable efforts among the Maker community to support the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the NHS.

For example, a home-based 3D printing community, 3D Crowd UK, rapidly organised in March at the very beginning of the pandemic. It quickly raised over £150,000 in crowdfunding to organise the quick production and delivery of PPE and face shields for the NHS staff and frontline key workers, and ultimately delivered over 200,000 face shields to 90 NHS Trusts and care homes.

On the platform they created, individuals can either submit a PPE request online or register as volunteers if they own a 3D printer. Once registered, 3D Crowd UK sends instructions for the 3D printing of face shields’ headbands which are then sealed, collected and transported to local hubs free of charge. There, the final assembly and quality checks take place, and finally the face shields are distributed to end users.

Lessons for the UK

While in many ways these resembled Maker responses from around the world, discussion with significant leaders of the initiatives in the UK revealed interesting distinctions that can help inform how the Maker Movement in Britain can be supported and drawn upon in future.

Lack of a formalised national network

First, unlike other major European countries and the US, there is no national network of Makers in the UK. In 2015, Nesta published an open database of makerspaces in the UK, but since then there has been little work at a strategic level to coordinate activities.

For the most part, fabrication spaces, and the Maker community more broadly, operate as locally-driven and independent initiatives. UK-based Makers referred to the importance of leveraging their own personal networks to establish effective collaborations.

This raises the question of what happens in the absence of personal networks, and whether some potential capacity went unused because of a lack of communication and networking opportunities for Makers.

‘What astounded me was this “seven degrees of separation” aspect,’ said Mike McEwan, a board member of Shield Collaborative, a cooperative of 30 initiatives for the production and distribution of PPE for health workers. ‘One of the key things that I’d like to see get sustained here is the way these communities maintain themselves. It’s very easy to go back to “it’s all about you and your problems” and I think there’s an opportunity at this particularly bad time for all of these groups to think about working in a different way.’

Lack of clear communication on the demand side

Second, a major challenge for the Maker community responding to COVID-19 was a lack of understanding about existing demand for critical items. There was little communication between healthcare practitioners and Makers, and in some instances, healthcare practitioners struggled to precisely define their own needs, as the crisis situation was escalating so rapidly.

Some organisations were set up to specifically tackle this issue. For example, 3D Crowd UK established itself as a coordinating body that could help to match demand for face shields between front-line workers and volunteer Makers. Despite other attempts to track demand for PPE across the UK, these efforts fell short of offering a centralised database that could effectively track and match demand and supply in real-time.

Such a platform could help in the recording and sharing information on local demand and supply for critical items in a crisis. And it should consider ‘supply’ from actors beyond just the Maker community. For example, the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy posted online forms requesting information of possible manufacturing ‘supply’ as part of their Ventilator Challenge. Any database should consider Makers as part of an integrated manufacturing network of supply.

‘I think all of these examples have shown that we’re very capable, as a community of makers around the world, of producing quickly and efficiently some fantastic innovative products,’ said Ward Hills, one of the directors of Cambridge Makespace, a community workshop. ‘Maybe in the second wave or in future challenges what we need to do to make this process smoother is to look at the demand side of things, so regularising what actually is needed to define better the questions that we are trying to answer.’

Distributed quality control

Third, there are tensions between drawing on the Maker movement to support local adaption and the need for the standardisation of production.

Maker culture is inherently linked with ‘tinkering’, an activity that is made possible through the availability of open source hardware which enables people to locally adapt and replicate designs. This approach has clear advantages in that it allows for Makers to adapt their designs to local needs, as well as local resource constraints. For example, the dimensions of a face shield design can be adjusted according to changing availability of materials.

Whilst this solves the problem in hand it introduces new challenges for the standardisation of production, which is fundamental for ensuring the production of professional quality items. The Maker Movement reflects a community that has organically developed and that has been primarily concerned with design and prototyping. The reconfiguration of fabrication spaces into manufacturing spaces therefore demands an expanded set of skills, as well as a shift in cultural mindset.

‘I would say that [looking forward] we would need to partner with some of the regulatory bodies that would, in a way, join our communities,’ said McEwan. ‘That to me has been one of the biggest issues with the 3D printing community, the use of designs and the ability to get them through regulatory frameworks.’

Volunteerism and innovation

But above all, the Maker response to the pandemic has drawn attention to the latent innovation potential of the general public in the UK. The Maker community played a significant role in the COVID-19 initial response, through the production of hundreds of thousands of face masks, face shields and other critical items.

This shows the potential for community networks to have societal impact; for example, 3D Crowd UK is being repurposed into a 3D printing organisation for social impact. But it also highlights questions about the sustainability of volunteer-driven activities. Many Maker activities have been largely dependent on donations of money, time and resources. This was dependent on both idle capacity and enthusiasm to pitch in, neither of which is guaranteed in future unless the movement is nurtured.

‘I think one of the amazing things at the time when we had spun up so quickly was pulling together that energy, that drive, that determination to solve this one single problem,’ said Adam Clarke, marketing director of 3D Crowd UK. ‘There is a determination if there is a second wave and there is demand, we will do our best to meet it… we raised £160,000 but the total spending was probably close to £400,000. A lot of that was mere personal donations: can people do that again?’

The article is based on conversations initiated at Make: Plan C, a seminar organised in collaboration with Make:, including the following panel speakers: Ward Hills, a director of Makespace Cambridge; Adam Clarke, Marketing Director of 3Dcrowd UK; Mike McEwan, board member of Shield Collaborative; and Kate Hammer, founder of CareSleeves, a project seeded within Shield Collaborative.

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