How One Corporate Innovator Assembled a Volunteer Team to Print Face Shields

By Scott Kirsner |  April 6, 2020

On a recent videoconference, Shashi Jain apologized for the noise pervading in his home office. It came from one of Jain’s 3D printers, cranking out components for a plastic face shield. 

Shashi Jain holding up a 3D-printed headband component of the face shields being produced by the Portland 3D Printing Lab.

Jain’s day job is at the semiconductor giant Intel, where he works as a Strategic Innovation Manager and Entrepreneur-in-Residence. But he’s working almost another full-time shift — about six hours — each day as a lead organizer of the Portland 3D Printing Lab. Over the past two weeks, the volunteer group has been using the 3D printers they own to produce face shields for healthcare workers in the Portland area. 

So far, 200 people in the group are actively printing out the components that, married with a clear piece of plastic, create a wearable face shield that can keep a healthcare worker safe from droplets of moisture that carry the coronavirus. As of April 6, they had delivered about 1,300 pieces of this so-called PPE (personal protective equipment) to hospitals, nursing homes, and individual doctors, with another 4,300 in process. Members of the group are running their printers so hard that when fans or other components burn out, they turn to the 3D Printing Lab’s Facebook group to get maintenance advice or solicit spare parts. 

We asked Jain about the keys to mobilizing the group of volunteers so quickly.

Simplicity. “If you know how to 3D print, we will make it dead simple for you to participate,” Jain says. “We have to give each person a unit of work that they can do autonomously.”

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Jain’s crew didn’t design their own face shield from scratch; they adopted an open source design from Prusa, a Czech company that makes 3D printers. (Because the design is open source and can be freely modified, volunteers have been contributing in recent weeks to make the design easier to print on a wide range of printers.) And rather than investing their time in trying to understand which healthcare facilities locally were in need of PPE, they relied on the website GetUsPPE, which collects requests for face shields and other protective gear. (Some requests for face shields do come in through the personal networks of members of the Portland 3D Printing Lab, Jain says.)

No meetings. There are no regularly scheduled planning or progress meetings, Jain says. Communication happens via Facebook’s chat application. Volunteers can “check out” tasks they are willing to do using a Google Doc. Shared Google Docs also track the status of production and delivery. In any large company, Jain says, “We would’ve spent a week just talking about the setup meeting for whatever effort we were going to do. Here, a few of us came together and agreed we were going to do it on a handshake – a virtual handshake.”

Nurses at Kaiser Permanente Sunnyside, a suburban Portland hospital, wearing the 3D-printed face shields.

Emphasize the shared vision. Not everyone who feels inclined to help will actually wind up helping. “Some volunteers take on tasks, but then don’t respond,” Jain says. “But this is different from a corporate structure. Here, there’s only a carrot, no stick. With volunteers, they’ll either rise to the occasion, or drift away. You have to set up an environment where people are challenged. You give them the space to do their own thing, but also you also help them to feel like we are coming together under a shared vision.” 

Celebrate progress. Jain and his fellow group members ensure that photos of finished shields being packaged up for delivery get shared on Facebook, along with pictures of healthcare personnel wearing them. That keeps the group’s members energized.

Think about the next phase. Jain knows — or hopes — that larger-scale manufacturers of face shields will soon catch up to the demand from healthcare facilities. But he’s thinking there may still be first responders or workers in grocery stores or pharmacies who want protective equipment. So that may be a future focus for the Portland 3D Printing Lab. 

GoFundMe campaign to help the group purchase raw materials has so far raised $6,500.