Since the beginning of the epidemic in France, the mobilization of makers and fablabs against Covid-19 is unprecedented. Catapulted by a decade of experience in collaborative teleworking and distributed fabrication, the maker movement immediately sprang into action. But fablabs and makers are left to liaise directly with health care workers and civil society.
By Hugues Aubin (Vice-President of Réseau Français des Fablabs) and Ewen Chardronnet (Editor-in-chief of Makery)
Makers join the wave of national solidarity
On April 9, Réseau Français des Fablabs (French fablabs network) estimates that since the beginning of the lockdown, 100,000 face shields were 3D-printed or laser-cut in France. This mass distributed production by some 5,000 volunteer makers and 100 fablabs is unprecedented on a national scale.
Fablabs, independent makers, small businesses are adapting or creating designs to mass manufacture emergency equipment for all exposed health care workers: face shields, spare parts for respirators, syringe pumps, decontamination systems to open doors, disinfect objects, etc. But even as these actors are rushing to the frontline of the crisis, they remain without any validation or advice from the Ministry of Health. So far, only Association française de normalisation (AFNOR) has published legal information on cloth masks.
While waiting for a response from higher up, university hospitals (CHU) are validating makeshift solutions—empirically and in the absence of any legal framework—when nothing else is available and an immediate response in the field is literally vital.
Recently, there is some hope from AP-HP (Assistance publique – Hôpitaux de Paris) and its Covid3d platform, which indexes non-patented models from open research as they emerge, in order to disseminate them along with secure specifications for fabrication and distribution.
Distributed manufacturing needs official validation
But after several weeks of lockdown, it has become all the more clear that the chain of research-certification-manufacturing-logistics must be consolidated.
Only the Réseau Français des Fablabs has so far offered a holistic view that incorporates both health care workers and civil society. April 3 marked the first meeting of Fab and Co (industrial fablabs), AP-HP (Covid3d), independent makers assembled around Youtuber Heliox, Yann Marchal and Anthony Sedikki (Facebook groups Makers contre le Covid, Visières Solidaires), France Tiers-lieux, Monsieur Bidouille (and his Discord of 2000 makers and developers), Just One Giant Lab (JOGL) global distributed laboratory, Covid-Initiatives knowledge base, Fab City Grand Paris and its MakersCovid.Paris project.
The objective was to elaborate a framework for processes beyond the medical context in favor of both civil society (essential services and businesses) and international applications (especially transferability to Southern nations). It has since become a collective managed by an association without employees or resources, which communicates and articulates on behalf of various players throughout France. This initiative serves to prevent or counteract the propagation of dangerous models, while responding to needs that at the moment seem to be neglected by the government (nursing homes, essential services and businesses, etc.).
However we now know that an outgoing model—for example, an “Entraide Maker – Covid 19” Discord or a JOGL made-in-fablab prototype—can be scientifically and medically measured by AP-HP. If valid, it can then be immediately disseminated via the extensive network of field initiatives in distributed manufacturing, including Facebook groups. This process can provide a structure across France.
Learning from mobilization
In terms of DIY mobilization, the World Health Organization’s formula for hydroalcoholic gel was a keystone in inspiring the “Don’t wait, do it yourself” attitude. In France, this catalyzing initiative was followed by CHU Grenoble’s model for cloth masks. Today, the majority of masks made in the French countryside are based on that same document.
Likewise, face shields were delivered to exposed health care workers even before the government deemed it necessary. This time, the impetus was Czech 3D printer manufacturer Prusa’s publication on March 19 of the open source 3D model for face shields—further documented with a secure protocol to clean, package and deliver them. These documents have since been reused and updated around the globe.
Within the first days of lockdown, people got organized to design open source respirators: Makers for Life and its MakAir project supported by CHU Nantes, the Minimal Universal Respirator project supported by the NGOs Objectif Sciences International and ACTED. These groups are working in the shadows to respond to an international pandemic—not a national epidemic—without seeking the media spotlight.
Equally surprising is the rapid conversion to open models by French corporations. Suddenly, these patent champions were able to reprogram their production capacity within days based on open models. Yes, it’s possible.
Still, we must align responses on all levels of fabrication, from industry to local neighborhood maker. Just one simple missing piece can hold everything up—every day, emergency requests from hospitals are posted on Réseau Français des Fablabs’s Mattermost platform.
Open science as a framework for global action
On a global scale, many open science models appear on the Helpful Engineering website for anything requiring technical skills. This well-structured platform has become an international center of gravity for creating open models.
At the same time, JOGL has been extremely reactive, effective and well positioned to mobilize French-speaking research and prototyping communities and apply their efforts to the emergency response. Leveraging its international network of biology communities worldwide (linked to MIT’s Community Biotechnology Initiative, iGEM and DIYbio networks), JOGL immediately called into action its distributed skills and platforms.
Today in France, JOGL and Entraide Maker’s Discord are partners in implementing actions by the Réseau Français des Fablabs and AP-HP’s Covid3d. They organize hackathons to tackle medical priorities, extract shortlists of models to submit for validation, and disseminate health recommendations.
All these initiatives demonstrate the vital role of open science during the global pandemic, especially in Southern nations. Where medical devices are sold at a prohibitive cost and cannot be repaired on site, open instruments can be appropriated, re-manufactured and adapted to local contexts through shared documents, open distributed design and manufacturing that is optimized for on-site resources. This process is potentially faster and cheaper, providing easier access to medical equipment and therefore to health care. Distributed research and training further nurtures continuous improvements among different countries. Developing accessible tools based on these founding principles could also revolutionize the field of biology, diagnoses and medical practice, while reinforcing equity in access to health care and autonomy.
Synergizing complementary manufacturing
In France, open research around the Covid-19 crisis has been unbridled. However, this progress is undermined by lack of official validation, synergy with the private sector, responding to civil society, local logistics and responsibilities. The government and industries announce target horizons of 10-15 days, if not one or two months. But France will still need small manufacturing units. How can we facilitate their activity?
Some leads: continuously extract and select open research models while prioritizing the parts and equipment most in demand by hospitals; recruit hospital metrologists and testers in laboratories to accelerate the validation process; immediately transmit these validations to small 3D printing businesses as well as fablabs and independent makers. Factories could also help manufacture spare parts.
Now more than ever, the Fab City model—which promotes open distributed cooperation, localized resources and manufacturing in order to limit the flow of materials in the fight against climate change—seems to be the way forward.
Certifying open source models
Distributed manufacturing has laid the groundwork for an effective chain of accelerated validation for open research. This validation phase could pave the way for an entire ecosystem.
The Scientific Board of AP-HP’s Covid3d will evaluate unpatented systems and techniques submitted by workgroups, scientific and medical teams will test and standardize the prototypes, before disseminating recommendations for multimodal manufacturing (from personal fabrication to industrial manufacturing). Group leaders (in charge of face shields, syringe pumps, masks, valves, etc.) are doing everything they can to unify the chain, while AP-HP metrologists are working overtime to validate prototypes that may well be relayed by industries, companies, fablabs and independent makers in the near future, and well beyond France.
Meanwhile, international NGOs could also be crucial in fighting the pandemic. Outside of distributed manufacturing, localization and new emerging cycles for logistics, there are few mid-term manufacturing solutions that can cross borders and adapt to local resources.
Financing equipment, collaborative platforms and logistics
Mobilized makers have set up a number of piggy banks. First, to collect vital funds in order to purchase protective gear for local health care workers and businesses, essential services lacking in public support; second, to support collaborative platforms and a structured nationwide response to better disseminate verified information and cohesive action.
Their mobilization needs support.
Supply of materials for makers is now crucial. As some suppliers face the possibility of exhausting their stock, much of their inventory is bought out by industrial corporations for uncertain horizons, while for makers, the production and distribution of makeshift materials must be immediate. Beyond models and manuals, what independent makers, small businesses and fablabs need now are materials such as PLA, PMMA, PET and PETG plastics, Nema 17 motors, etc. Access to consumables is fundamental to the continuous improvement of distributed manufacturing.
Since the beginning of the lockdown, collaborative maker platforms including JOGL, Makers contre le Covid, RFFLabs, Covid-Initiatives, MakersCovid.Paris, Fabricommuns and many others have been working around the clock, with both day and night teams. They need support for human resources and validation in the field: clear and synthesized information regarding medical priorities and logistics within a local circuit.
The concept of manufacturing and localized production within distributed networks has broken out of the theoretical niche of fablab utopia. Today it is operating practically on a national scale, responding to the public emergency of severe shortages in vital equipment. Most of all, this local and distributed mode of operation just may be our best hope for remaking our post-pandemic world.
Hugues Aubin (Vice-President of Réseau Français des Fablabs): firstname.lastname@example.org
Ewen Chardronnet (Editor-in-chief of Makery): email@example.com