When supply chains were disrupted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, Innovation Works (IW) helped Makers Unite in their efforts to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to local hospitals, schools and government agencies.
Innovation Works partnered with Open Works, Dent Education, Made in Baltimore, and local 3-D printers to essentially create a PPE manufacturing company in five days. In late March 2020, hundreds of people around Baltimore with 3D printers at home began making parts for face shields and other PPE. Known as Makers Unite, the effort was organized by Open Works, a community maker and studio space that pivoted quickly to PPE manufacturing.
Over the following two months, Makers Unite manufactured and sold 75,000 face shields and 15,000 masks at cost to help protect healthcare workers, public school staff and other essential workers.
Innovation Works quickly set up a website with ecommerce functions to sell the locally manufactured shields and masks. IW also performed customer discovery, approaching local hospital purchasing executives and other agencies in need of PPE. IW set up and managed back-office functions and distributed PPE shields and masks to customers.
While the initiative focused on providing locally needed PPE, Makers Unite ultimately shipped products across the country as far as Oregon and Florida. The PPE manufactured by Makers Unite was purchased by a host of organizations to protect staff from COVID-19. The products were used by healthcare workers, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors, Amtrak police, public school staff and other essential workers.
The Makers Unite drive demonstrated that when global supply chains are stretched until they snap, there is local capacity to manufacture critical goods. Because Makers Unite didn’t use the traditional, vertically integrated manufacturing model, it was very nimble and could quickly pivot to meet the evolving needs of the community. It was also more insulated from supply chain disruptions that impacted more traditional manufacturing methods.
This model for mutual aid that uses makerspaces, digital fabrication, and online organizing presents a valuable opportunity to address critical social issues in Baltimore. IW and Open Works are now looking to answer the longer-term question: Will local purchasers have an appetite to buy more from this community of manufacturers in the future when cheaper, foreign manufactured items are available again?
Baltimore is a hub for a strong community of makers, artists, creatives, and residents that can be mobilized to crowdsource, crowd manufacture, and distribute critical goods to communities. In this case, Baltimore’s greatest asset – its people – rallied to close the gap in the shortage of PPE.
IW will continue to support these efforts as new needs emerge and local manufacturers step up to fill these needs.