Sonita Lontoh is an award-winning Fortune 100 executive and public company independent board director.
My work includes translating complex, disruptive innovation into useful information that helps others understand how they can lower costs, serve customers and society better, and create new business models in meaningful ways. However, in my almost 25 years of leading and advising at the intersection of disruptive technologies, digital transformation and the 4th industrial revolution, I have never seen a faster paradigm and mindset change than in the past year of the pandemic.
According to the World Economic Forum, the 4th industrial revolution includes the convergence of emerging technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence), robotics, 3D printing, and big data/cloud to enable a digital transformation that will create a new world ecosystem that is more efficient, safer and more sustainable for all. In the more specific world of 3D printing (additive manufacturing), there had previously been a hypothesis that it had the potential to disrupt supply chain for the better, by anticipating the need, responding to change, and making things simpler. It seemed straightforward enough, right?
But suddenly, the world stopped — and the world’s supply chain was disrupted. Mission-critical applications began to deplete their supply, right at the moment when there was a growing demand for things like masks, ventilator valves/adaptors, mechanical bag valve masks, face shields, ventilation equipment, and other associated medical applications. Typically, these were manufactured in certain low-cost countries, but now shipping was essentially shut down, so how could the demand still be met quickly and effectively?
That’s where 3D printing experienced a bit of a revolution. With this technology, you can make products as needed, where they are needed, and without having to maintain an inventory or warehouse. The pandemic had provided a new opportunity to showcase this incredible technology, in a way that could literally help save lives.
In the United States, many of the desperately needed items such as N95 mask seals could be created using 3D printing technology — and several other product types are being developed for future response readiness. While there are still some unanswered questions and challenges in producing things like oral solid dosage medications via 3D technology, it’s exciting to see the direction the technology might take going forward to serve humanity.
Serving A Global Need — In A Localized Way
In September 2020, amid the Covid-19 crisis, the FDA produced a study to detail the impact of 3D printing on additive manufacturing from nontraditional sources during critical response. This study reviewed several actual case studies which now form the basis for best practices going forward.
Last spring, as the pandemic was at its height and there were mass shortages of N95 masks and ventilator equipment at major hospitals nationwide, the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science’s National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory worked with a group of 16 labs to figure out ways to address the shortages. Their primary concern was to make sure none of the ventilators needed would be sitting idle due to parts shortages or import challenges. They discovered that they could custom design single-use ventilator ports that could fit virtually any face shape or size — making them more adjustable while using less material.
At my company, we are also very involved in future response readiness. We have worked with Harvard University and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to analyze and improve designs for 3D test swabs and one design showed excellent concordance with the controls in the IRB-approved clinical trial. It is already available for use in the U.S.
Creating A Powerful New Showcase
Efforts like these quickly galvanized and validated a technology that, until this point, had had a relatively slow market adoption for certain applications. Now, helping an overwhelmed healthcare industry with many mission-critical applications, the true power and potential of this technology had been unleashed.
We often see that brilliant inventors are very focused on features and capabilities. However, for communicators like me, it’s very important to be able to translate great technology into things that consumers, businesses and policy makers all can understand: usually in the forms of improving overall costs, providing a better customer experience, creating new business models that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, creating good-paying jobs and improving sustainability.
There is really no one-size-fits-all as to why people adopt new disruptive technologies and their outcomes. For consumers, it could be about having more personalized and more affordable solutions that not only better fit their needs, but also less wasteful and better for the environment. For businesses, it could be about improving operational efficiencies and providing superior customer experience to end-customers. For policy makers, it’s usually about societal impact such as creating good-paying jobs, lowering emissions, or strengthening their country’s global competitiveness.
In the case of 3D printing, the shift from centralized production and international shipping to distributed production on an as-needed basis is a major one. It enables entrepreneurs to innovate faster: design something new, test their designs quickly and iterate more affordably than ever, getting them to market faster. They can also create solutions on demand, obviating costly inventory and warehousing. Their solutions can be more personalized to consumers’ needs and more sustainable for the environment.
Most importantly, new disruptive technologies enable best practices and lessons learned to be shared even faster than before, significantly trimming the test-to-market phase for many inventors and entrepreneurs.
Increasing the cycle of adoption is what innovation is all about, as it delivers a positive impact to consumers, businesses, and society — not just for the sake of having new things, but to change the way we live and the speed at which we can respond to global challenges.