Mechanical Engineering

Top 5 lessons from Badger Shield project

Badger Shield gave me the opportunity to collaborate with an amazing group of men and women this year – designers, suppliers, manufacturers, and customers. I expect to have built lifelong collaborators and friends through this trial by virus. (For background, read the article in Wired).

I asked many of those on the core team to answer the question: “what were your top lessons, stories, or surprises from the year?” The responses were awesome, and I’ve distilled these into a Top Five list.

The open source model is powerful. Brian Ellison from Midwest Prototyping quoted Thomas Jefferson as referenced in a Malcolm Gladwell article about intellectual property: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” We hoped to make the largest and widest impact as quickly as possible and open source allows that by relinquishing control and potentially sacrificing profit.

Just a reminder that the network of Badger Shield manufacturers did not give the shields away – this was a money-making undertaking aimed at keeping their lights on and their teams employed. So, it was a leap of faith by Midwest Prototyping to convert their facility to shield making while much bigger organizations were doing the same thing. Though competition was created, I think everyone would agree that cooperation won out.

Supply chains are fragile in a crisis. The open source design called out materials from McMaster-Carr and as companies and individuals filled their carts with clear plastic, elastic, and foam, these materials quickly disappeared. Substitute suppliers were identified and each one was quickly overwhelmed. Overseas shipments stopped, and domestic options were limited, especially for the elastic. Weavers have fallen on hard times, but we witnessed around-the-clock responses in North Carolina and Wisconsin to meet this challenge. 

As Steve Grundahl of Midwest Prototyping says “Usually the professionals have more than a week to do it,” but not this time. We did have to quickly learn how to deal with suppliers willing to over-promise and under-deliver, but eventually we found the superstars. Our dream is that this “pop-up supply chain” powered by matching software developed at the University of Wisconsin (UW) will meet the needs of the next crisis at the local level so we don’t revert back to the lowest cost, highly efficient, and extremely fragile global supply chain we have become reliant on. 

Lennon Rodgers of the UW MakerSpace says, “Distributed manufacturing of the Badger Shield allowed hospitals to connect with local manufactures for their production needs. This provided a more authentic response and engagement since manufacturers were helping those in their own community. It also made logistics easier – since companies could hand deliver if needed. They could also customize the design and scale up/down quickly based on the demands.”

    Photo of Ford worker constructing a Badger Shield
    Ford quickly re-tooled to make millions of Badger Shields .

    Design for the need with usability and scalability in mind. I’m combining two of our core operating principals into one hot tip. First, design for a real user and get their feedback on your solution early and often. In the case of the shield, we asked them what face shields they currently used and what they liked about them. This formed the basis for the design of the Badger Shield.

    Then we considered our material and processing options when creating the initial and refined designs. We didn’t get hung up on technologies like 3D printing, which can be slow and expensive and must have a clear advantage, and removed features from the on-market masks like flex cutouts in the foam that would add time and cost to each shield. We constantly iterated as we learned. Justin Bruce of Coaster Cycles describes their refinement process: “In order for us to build 2,000,000 face shields, we had to test and re-test processes to get to the most efficient process possible. We designed and fine-tuned a build process to save every second we could. We broke out stations and had some people stocking supplies at the work stations, lots of people assembling, and several people who just bagged or boxed the shields. We are actually changing the way we build our new bike designs based on what we learned from making face shields.”

    When designing the PAPR (powered air purifying respirator) hood, we took usability testing to the extreme, iterating the design and meeting the UW docs and nurses the hospital loading dock to try on prototypes five times in five days.

    Velocity is critical. Speed is almost always your friend and during a pandemic. Perfection is certainly the enemy of the good, especially since we were dealing with incomplete information and shifting landscapes. As Brian reminded us, “Eventually, you have to shoot the engineer.” Thanks a lot, buddy. But he’s right – we needed to ignore “nice-to-have” features and focus on the key characteristics.

    When you’re moving quickly to address a crisis, it’s not the time to innovate. As Brian put it, “While many groups started innovating on new designs and utilizing their technology base to create solutions, our group assessed what was currently being used and put together a manufacturing network to quickly create face shields that were pretty much exactly the same as what they could get previously.”

    One key to maintaining velocity was having what Lennon called “A diverse team representing multiple skill sets.” I would expand on that to call it a small, diverse team representing multiple skill sets. Whenever the team expanded too much, we slowed down. Our diversity gave us confidence in our solutions and kept us from delays caused by specialists.

    Face Shield 3
    UW Hospital staff helped us test prototypes.

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