Point of View

Open thoughts on open source

May 19, 2020

I have been spending a fair amount of time thinking about the spectrum of successes and failures related to the open-source maker movement and its contributions to addressing the COVID crisis.

I am proud of our efforts on Badger Shield, which I would put decidedly in the success column. Borne from a request within the UW Health system, Badger Shield leveraged a human-centered design process to connect “users” with critical needs with “suppliers” who had the skills, capacity, and motivation to help, along with a carefully vetted “open-source” design. To date, more than 15 million Badger Shields have been manufactured by over 400 suppliers (including Kohler, Sub Zero, Fiskars, ETC, Joa, Wisconsin Foam, Placon, John Deere, and Ford Motor Company) and delivered to meet a vital need within the community.

Besides serving a critical need, Badger Shield provided desperately needed jobs to many firms along with a shared sense of community and the satisfaction of helping. The success of Badger Shield was reflected in articles in the national press including WIRED and the Wall Street Journal, as well as through numerous testimonials. Some of these are included below.

While Badger Shield yielded some really positive results, other maker-based, open-source efforts were decidedly less successful. This article speaks eloquently to some of the missteps and hurdles in efforts to produce a low-cost ventilator outside of the conventional manufacturing supply chain.

By no means am I casting aspersions on any of these very honorable and well-intentioned efforts. There were some herculean efforts put forth using the best available information in an incredibly dynamic situation. I’m sure there was some brilliant creativity, design, and engineering – but most open-source design efforts seem to have sputtered.

A fair amount of failure is an inevitable byproduct of any product innovation effort, and the perfect storm of chaos and panic brought on by COVID-19 was hardly a fertile environment for thoughtful, measured innovation. And you could argue that even Badger Shield represents a broader “failure,” as it hardly makes sense for Ford Motor Company to need to be producing plastic face shields.

Consequently, I have spent some time thinking about the viability of open-source collaboration as a stopgap means of addressing critical needs during times of national crisis. Some of the chaos could have been avoided through better planning, and in certain key situations, stockpiling of critical goods or developing more nimble domestic manufacturing options. I really hope that time is taken to honestly assess lessons from this time and proactively seek realistic and meaningful contingencies for future scenarios. I worry that in today’s hyper-partisan, charged atmosphere that thoughtful reflection seems unlikely and placing blame and finger pointing seem more de rigueur.

The reality is that it’s unlikely that advanced planning could have accurately foreseen the magnitude of this disaster and the level of disruption on existing supply chains and the balance of supply/ demand for routine commodities that suddenly became essential. And while developing domestic US-based supply chains for critical elements is a laudable goal and should be pursued, I also believe it will be impossible to accurately predict the nature and magnitude of all future disasters and crises.

“I really hope that time is taken to honestly assess lessons from this time and proactively seek realistic and meaningful contingencies for future scenarios.”

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