In Washington state, Superfeet couldn’t ignore reports about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for local hospitals. The 43-year-old company makes athletic insoles and shoes; its newest portion of the business—a partnership with HP—is crafting individualized insoles tuned to a person’s individual movement patterns, which are 3D printed after they visit a retail outlet for a Fitstation dynamic gait analysis. Superfeet is employee-owned and donates 1 percent of its revenue to non-profits, from local food kitchens to the Conservation Alliance. “At Superfeet we’ve built our business around putting people first,” says Hayes. “We’ve been in this community since 1977, and we’re very tied in. Our community is very important to us.” He says the company’s internal motto is “Be the Awesome,” a reminder of their commitment to be what they want to see in the world. “It’s not in our nature to hunker down and just take care of ourselves. Right away we asked what we could do to help.”
The Superfeet team reached out to their local hospital who identified a PAPR hood supply shortage. The product development team at Superfeet noticed a small plastic port on the back of the hospital PAPR hood, which connects to the air hose. They knew they could 3D print those ports. But who could make the fabric hood?
The answer was a nearby company called Pioneer AeroFab, which makes upholstery for airliners. “They stepped in and offered to sew the hood,” says Hayes. “The hoods come into our facility, where we print the ports. We do the final assembly and ship them off to hospitals.”
Superfeet and its sister company, Flowbuilt, which does the actual 3D printing, had three HP Multi Jet Fusion printers ready to go. After HP provided extra print beds, the companies were printing around the clock. They partnered with JawsTec and Jabil to produce additional 3D printed ports. By May, Superfeet delivered 42,000 hoods to hospitals as far east as Missoula, Mont., and south to San Diego. They now have capacity to print 30,000 more.
Back in Nashville, SmileDirectClub has now printed more than 66,000 face shields and actually has 15,000 in inventory, waiting for delivery. Besides supplying hospitals and manufacturers like St. Luke’s Health System in Idaho and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), it has also distributed shields to its own employees around the world. Rather than slow down, the company is now partnering with HP to try to print nasal test swabs.
Democracy of design
Hayes and Baker view the pandemic response as a defining moment for 3D printing. “The brilliance of 3D is it can pivot overnight,” says Baker. And he believes 3D can shine in collaboration with conventional manufacturing. “You could have injection-molded items that might be sitting there waiting for one part that’s in transit,” he says. “But with a 3D printer, you can get parts produced very quickly. These past weeks, we were willing to partner and experiment and figure it out together.”
“Our mission is to empower people by providing new and innovative ways to deliver care,” adds Katzman. “We felt it was our duty to do all we could to help the medical community during this crisis, and we’ll continue to test and find new ways to produce materials.”