The coronavirus 'Dunkirk moment': How amateur inventors and hobbyists are designing and making medical supplies

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to push medical supply chains to their breaking point, a decentralized community of engineers, designers and DIY hobbyists — commonly known as “makers” — has stepped in to find creative ways to fill the gaps. These are the folks retrofitting snorkeling masks into low-cost parts for ventilators, using 3D printers to produce plastic face shields for medical workers and creating at-home assembly lines for cloth face masks. They work within existing companies and academic settings or individually around the world, and Jose Gomez-Marquez, co-director of the MIT Little Devices Lab, believes that this kind of innovation could play a vital role in medical problem solving, even in a post-pandemic world.

The MIT Little Devices Lab has worked with the medical community to create low-cost solutions for more than a decade. But rather than simply providing solutions, the Little Devices Lab gives healthcare workers tools to solve the problems themselves. “What we study is not how we solve things for healthcare,” says Gomez-Marquez. “We study how physicians and nurses on the frontline around the world solve problems — and then how do we make instruments to augment that solving ability?”

MakerHealth, a spin-off company of the Little Devices Lab, takes that concept one step further by building an environment similar to the Little Devices Lab within the hospitals themselves. “If you’re treating respiratory patients on the seventh floor, you can hit the elevator and go to the second floor and access 3D printers, laser cutters and, more importantly, a medical materials library that allows you to do exactly what I do at MIT,” Gomez-Marquez explains.

One project Gomez-Marquez and his colleagues are focused on is developing scalable testing for the coronavirus, which has been an ongoing need since the early days of the pandemic. The issue, as Gomez-Marquez sees it, is that traditional factories are not set up to pivot operations at the scale needed. “If you have a company that’s one day been making Wrigley’s Spearmint gum and you want to turn it into a rapid diagnostics line, it’s a great thought experiment. In practice, it’s hard,” he explains.

A nurse at UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, prepares a stethoscope for laser cutting. (Rose Hedges/UnityPoint)
A nurse at UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, prepares a stethoscope for laser cutting. (Rose Hedges/UnityPoint)

Instead, MakerHealth and the MIT Little Devices Lab have devised a set of modular, Lego-like reagents they call Ampli, which when assembled in a proper sequence can diagnose whether or not a patient is positive for the disease. The base of the blocks can be 3D printed with simple plastics, and the reagents that sit atop the blocks are biological compounds that can be grown from samples provided by Gomez-Marquez and his team. “Our theory is that if you can distribute these to a million people, those million people can make ten of those, they can make a hundred of those if they want to in an afternoon. That’s how we get to scale,” he says.

Ampli reagent blocks assembled to test for COVID-19. Dime for scale. (MIT Little Devices Lab)
Ampli reagent blocks assembled to test for COVID-19. Dime for scale. (MIT Little Devices Lab)

However, Gomez-Marquez notes that the decentralized maker network is not without weaknesses of its own. “A colleague of mine in an email exchange said, ‘I think this a Dunkirk-moment for makers,’” Gomez-Marquez recalls, referring to the hastily organized evacuation carried out in part by civilians of Allied troops from France in 1940, “but they don’t know what to do. Just because you have a 3D printer, doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing.”

“[The maker community] has amazing self-organizing capability, but at the same time we have to find a way to pierce through the noise,” he adds. “And that’s what we’re trying to do with our MakerHealth organization. We give doctors and nurses context-driven information where we don’t just 3D-print 800 things. We 3D-print the things they think matter.”

“Giving the people at the frontlines the tools they need and they’ll make it work, has been eminently proven,” says Gomez-Marquez. “Look at the Italians with their scuba masks. Look at the nurses in New York making PPE out of trash bags. In any other context, we would have seen those solutions as sub-par engineering, but the fact is those solutions are the ones that are saving lives.”

In recognizing the ingenuity of healthcare professionals, Gomez-Marquez believes that by harnessing the tools embraced by the maker community, a major transformation is on the horizon. “Not only will they come up with ideas, but they will act on those ideas, without me coming in and saving the day,” he tells Yahoo News. “That’s a new way forward, and I think it’s going to be one of those moments like when we stopped hiring ‘computer people’ to work with the doctor and we just gave the doctor the computer.”