Open innovation in a pandemic

COVID-19 has proven the worth of open innovation, paving the way for a collaborative future

Lindsay James
16 September 2020

5 min read

Despite causing unprecedented levels of chaos, the COVID-19 pandemic also demonstrated that collective intelligence – shared and developed through open innovation communities – can deliver capabilities that span far beyond what any one firm can achieve on its own.

While the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc around the globe, it also demonstrated exactly what can be achieved when passionate teams of experts and makers from around the world come together virtually to solve a problem. 

Neil Gershenfeld, director of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reveled in seeing the volunteer community of online innovators and makers he helped establish rise to one of the biggest challenges they were ever likely to face.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges, but has also significantly accelerated longer-term trends,” Gershenfeld said. “One has been to fill in the essential gap between individual rapid-prototyping – which can respond quickly, but not scale – and mass manufacturing – which can scale, but not respond quickly – by coordinating distributed production for PPE [personal protective equipment] and respiratory assistance. This has led to an appreciation of the mutual value of collaboration among groups that had never before worked together, from community activists to basic researchers.

“Perhaps even more important has been the essential role in the economic recovery of democratizing access to means of production through the rapid development and deployment of digital fabrication tools.”

A GLOBAL COLLABORATIVE EFFORT

Open innovation – a rising trend that sees independent innovators and makers join together, often online – played a pivotal role in facilitating these collaborations. The Open COVID-19 Community, for example, is a platform designed to unite designers, engineers, manufacturers and medical experts from around the globe, using their collective intelligence and capabilities to source, qualify, design, engineer and manufacture rapid solutions during the pandemic.

To date the community has helped expedite more than 120 projects, including several innovative ventilators. For example, Indian startup Inali tapped into the Open COVID-19 Community to rapidly design, engineer, simulate, manufacture and validate a prototype of its “DIY Smart Ventilator” – all in fewer than eight days.

Other project facilitated through the Open COVID-19 Community include:

“The Open COVID-19 Community has been incredibly important in expediting the development of products for those on the frontlines.”

Nicolai Rutkevich
Master’s degree student, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro

“We wanted to create something that could be delivered quickly to developing countries, using very basic components,” said Nicolai Rutkevich, a master’s degree student at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, who led the project. “Our ventilator has been created using a basic mechanical concept which relies on harmonic motion to deliver air. Its parts could be scavenged locally. And it could be mass-produced very cheaply and supplied to ambulances and local health centers, who could use it for patients waiting to receive urgent medical help.”



The Ventivida ventilator was designed around a windshield-wiper motor so that it could be delivered quickly to developing countries, using very basic components. (Image © Ventivida Group)

Such efforts, Rutkevich said, helped many communities manage the worst days of the pandemic. “The Open COVID-19 Community has been incredibly important in expediting the development of products for those on the frontlines,” he said.

PROTECTING THE FRONT LINE

Other Open COVID-19 Community makers looked to meet the urgent calls for PPE.

When the pandemic canceled all on-campus classes at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, David Planchard – active faculty member in the institute’s Mechanical Engineering department – decided to provide his students with an experience in solving COVID-19 problems.

The project proved to be a perfect exercise for applying the students’ engineering design skills in a remotely connected team environment.

“I’d heard about the Open COVID-19 Community and thought my students could learn a great deal from it, while also doing their bit for the pandemic,” Planchard said. “I created eight teams, each made up of three or four students. Each team was tasked to design their own 3D-printable face shield band. I asked them to consider design parameters, assembly, safety and strength, comfort, size, material, and [3D] print time.”

To aid students, Planchard also shared a scientifically accurate 3D simulation of a sneeze, demonstrating the trajectory of the various mucus particles and where the particles land on the surfaces of a shielded individual.

“This was a real eye-opener for students,” Planchard said. “It greatly influenced their designs.”

Working remotely in a connected team environment, students at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute applied their engineering skills to design their own 3D-printable face shield band. (Image © David Planchard)

Each student team joined the Open COVID-19 Community to post their creations and obtain global community feedback from industry engineers and medical experts.

“Students used this invaluable feedback to enhance the quality of their designs,” Planchard said. “Once the students submitted the designs, I printed them off at home using my personal collection of 3D printers. A winning design was chosen, which we have actually mass produced and delivered to a local hospital that did not have any face shields at all at the start of the outbreak.”

COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE

Without the Open COVID-19 Community, Planchard said, many products that proved helpful would not have reached those in need.

“The community helped our team gain access to the latest and greatest efforts underway globally to serve the high demand for face shields,” he said. “In a time when traditional manufacturing methods and supply chains could not respond fast enough, it was wonderful to see how distributed digital fabrication was leading the way. Makers, designers and engineers in fab labs and in their personal garages and basements were cranking out innovative ideas using 3D tools and refining their designs using the additive manufacturing tools available to them. This knowledge, provided through the Open COVID-19 Community, has inspired teams and given them sufficient information to get started.”

“The Open COVID-19 Community has been instrumental in filling the gap between demand and supply in these incredibly stressful times. I’m certain that this is just the start of a very exciting – and far more collaborative – future.”

David Planchard
Faculty member, Mechanical Engineering department, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Brazilian ventilator innovator Rutkevich emphasizes the deep knowledge of those who assisted his team through the Open COVID-19 Community.

“People who have never met before are all helping each other, providing their own ideas and expertise,” he said. “I’ve connected with engineers from Bosch, Embraer, Cefet-RJ, universities in Sao Paulo and more. I also have access to medics who can give us first-hand information about what they need, and to service engineers from hospitals who can explain the specifics of equipment. In normal circumstances, I’d never have access to these people. But thanks to the Open COVID-19 Community, it is now possible.”


Each student team received global community feedback from the Open COVID-19 Community before 3D printing their face shield band design. (Image © David Planchard)

With these examples of successes achieved in the midst of a pandemic, open innovation advocates hope that this new, collective way of innovating will stick, facilitating a new way of approaching the world’s biggest design challenges. 

“The Open COVID-19 Community has been instrumental in filling the gap between demand and supply in these incredibly stressful times,” Planchard said. “I’m certain that this is just the start of a very exciting – and far more collaborative – future.”

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