At InkSmith, we are firm believers in the Design Thinking process and have always integrated the methodology as part of our curriculum in education. Design Thinking centers around the idea of creating effective solutions by determining the root of the problem and iterating on prototypes to solve that problem. This thought process can be applied to all sorts of situations and used in combination with a variety of technologies, including 3D printing, robotics, and laser cutting.
Our team advocated for the Design Thinking process in education through a variety of workshops, curriculum and professional development sessions with the goal of equipping educators and students with critical thinking and problem solving skills. These skills have proven to be crucial for students as they enter the real world and look to obtain jobs in our digital economy.
Teaching Design Thinking has been at the centre of our mission for quite some time, but actually applying the theory outside of the classroom is another story. Practicing Design Thinking is something that has always come naturally for the InkSmith team. The idea of defining a problem, iterating, prototyping and then testing a solution has proven to be an effective way to solve problems both in education and in the real world. So, when InkSmith was approached about the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in Waterloo Region, our team quickly drew on our Design Thinking experience to figure out how the shortage could be tackled.
Detailed below is a step-by-step outline of InkSmith’s Design Thinking process for COVID-19, from problem to solution.
The team at InkSmith truly believes that our journey into the world of PPE manufacturing was a real-life execution of what we have always preached in education. We hope that this story can be used to demonstrate how following the Design Thinking process can lead to creating effective solutions to real world problems. In addition to this, we hope the story can inspire students to go out into the world and solve problems that will result in a better future for all of us.
Design Thinking Part 1: The Original Mission
InkSmith founder and CEO, Jeremy Hedges, had been following the COVID-19 pandemic since late January 2020. Soon after the virus made its way to Canada, it became clear that there would be a domestic shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for Canadian frontline workers at hospitals, healthcare facilities and other front-line operations.
As the crisis worsened, concerns for the safety of healthcare workers were voiced nationwide. According to CBC News, major hospitals were rationing surgical masks, and in some cases, even urging some nurses and other front-line staff to use just one mask for an entire shift.
One Canadian healthcare worker described the feeling of working on the front-line as “ominous” as she and 43,000 other members of the Ontario Medical Association received an email on March 24 with tips and advice on how to draft or revise their wills in light of the growing number of COVID-19 related deaths. The national effort to conserve PPE extended to other critical pieces of equipment, including gowns, gloves, N95s, ventilators as well as face shields.
Canada’s reliance on international supply chains for PPE put the nation in a vulnerable position as the global demand for life-saving equipment grew. Without a sufficient stockpile or a sustainable, stable supply, the need for made-in-Canada solutions became immediate.
For InkSmith, the effects of the PPE shortage became particularly personal when the team was approached by Dr. Neil Naik of the KW Academy of Medicine. Dr. Naik expressed his concern for hospitals in the Waterloo Region, describing the dire situation as many nurses and doctors were left with enough PPE to last only a few days of work on the front-lines. Something needed to be done, and quickly.
With an awareness of the growing need for PPE in the Waterloo Region and across the province, our team got to work. Six of our employees began brainstorming and defining the problem that we could begin solving for.
We recognized and defined the root of the problem to be a lack of adequate PPE for Canadian healthcare workers as a result of growing demand during the pandemic.
We quickly identified one piece of personal protective equipment that we had the resources to create with existing machines and infrastructure — a face shield.
A PPE face shield is designed to provide protection to the face from airborne particles and sprays of contagious liquids, including coronavirus droplets. COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets generated by a cough or a sneeze, close, prolonged personal contact, or touching something with the virus on it before touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing hands.
With this clarity surrounding the problem at hand, our team set out to produce a face shield that could effectively protect the forehead, eyes, cheeks, mouth and chin to support in equipping front-line workers in Canada to combat COVID-19.
With other countries around the world leading the way in their fight against COVID-19, our team looked to Europe and Asia for examples of how rapid prototyping, including 3D printing and laser cutting, could be used to combat PPE shortages.
Early in our ideation process, we came across a company out of the Czech Republic, Prusa Research, that had created a 3D printable version of a PPE face shield that had proven successful in hospitals overseas and could be easily replicated on our 3D printers. The model involves a 3D printed headband and contains a clear shield that could be cut out using InkSmith laser cutters.
With a reliable solution clearly identified, the team at InkSmith began prototyping the face shield solution. As many businesses began to close their doors after the provincial government’s mandated non-essential business closure, the process of sourcing materials proved difficult. However, with a little perseverance and passion for our project, we were able to source the necessary plastic and elastic to complete our first prototypes of the face shield.
Given the local need and the importance of this project, word about our initiative quickly began to spread across the Waterloo Region. Our team appeared in our first news segment about our 3D printing project on CTV News Kitchener on March 21, 2020.
Once our team had completed a dozen or more prototypes of the 3D printed face shields, we called in local professionals from the healthcare industry to test the design. Dr. Neil Naik, who had originally approached our team as well as Patrick Gaskin, CEO and President of Cambridge Memorial Hospital, acted as the two main influencers on the shield’s design. They each took prototypes of the shield back to their respective healthcare facilities for further user testing with nurses, doctors and other front-line workers on staff.
The shield was a success — and with a few minor adjustments to the Prusa design, InkSmith’s version of the 3D printed face shield was complete and ready to be deployed for use on the front-lines. Motivated to continue production, we got to work in bringing in the additional machinery, staff and reinforcements necessary to create as many 3D printed face shields as possible.
Working around the clock, our team quickly realized that the demand for PPE in the Waterloo Region was far greater than what could be 3D printed by our team, with our limited resources, let alone the rest of the province. That’s when we thought of all the school boards, libraries and individuals that we had sold 3D printers to over the years that could be invited to support the initiative. On March 22, 2020, we put a call out to the public for anyone with a 3D printer to help us crowdsource 3D printed parts to create the face shields faster -- and then received an overwhelming response.
Within 24 hours, we had already received hundreds of parts to our office in Kitchener, and hundreds turned to thousands just days later. Inspired by the enormous community effort taking place to make this initiative possible, InkSmith named the 3D printing face shield project “The Community Shield”.
As of May 6, 2020, The Community Shield project has resulted in more than 10,500 3D printed face shields being donated to front-line workers across the province, supporting nurses, doctors, long term care workers and more.
But wait, we’re not done there — that’s only part of InkSmith’s Design Thinking journey. The InkSmith team went back to the Design Thinking drawing board in order to create a fully reusable face shield that could be mass-produced far quicker than the previous 3D printed version. Now known as The Canadian Shield, this new version of the PPE face shield required another adventure through the Design Thinking process.
Design Thinking Part 2: The Canadian Shield
While the 3D Printed version of the PPE face shield was effective and could be produced using relatively simple technology and accessible materials, production time was extremely slow. Each headband took upwards of one hour to print and required additional time for assembly and sanitization. Additionally, sourcing 3D printed parts across Ontario also required a great deal of planning and logistical support, which was not scalable long term. Even with the efforts and support of the entire 3D printing community, there weren’t enough resources or 3D printers available to print fast enough to meet the growing demand for PPE in Waterloo Region and across the province.
In addition to this, another issue we identified was that because of the way that 3D printing technology works, the final plastic product was porous, making it difficult to sanitize and unsafe to reuse in hospitals. The inability to sanitize shields wasn’t isolated to our design alone -- we also recognized that one of the biggest design flaws of many of the face shields on the market was that they were also disposable and not sanitizable, contributing to shortages by limiting the ability of healthcare workers to get multiple uses out of the shields, safely.
The Community Shield project, which continues to this day, has proven crucial for meeting local needs for PPE face shields — but our team empathized with healthcare professionals that still needed a more accessible, reusable option for face shields. Our team had a bigger vision to meet the demand for reusable and recyclable PPE face shields across Canada.
The InkSmith team was able to define two main problems with the original shield design prototyped. First, the shield took far too long to produce with 3D printing — the new model needed to be produced in a matter of seconds, rather than hours. Second, the 3D printed shield was not reusable so the new design needed to be safely sanitizable to lessen the overall demand for PPE.
With the flaws in the first prototype clearly defined, the team set out to create a shield that was both 100% reusable and recyclable, and could be produced at mass-scale to meet the demand for PPE in Canada. In order to make production as efficient as possible, it was determined that the shield should be made of a material that can be quickly and efficiently cut to shape. Since the shield already used a thin plastic sheet for the front visor, the team decided to adapt this material to also function as the headband portion.
Creating the shield almost entirely from the same type of plastic meant that all of the components could be easily cleaned and safely sanitized, therefore making it reusable.
With new designs on the drawing board, we went about sourcing the appropriate materials and machinery to begin mass-producing a fully reusable version of the PPE face shield. The InkSmith team also went back and forth with Dr. Neil Naik as well as Patrick Gaskin, two of our most trusted sources, to finalize the design for the shield.
Originally, the plastic visor from the shield was manufactured with the same laser cutters used to produce the original 3D printed shields. We quickly transitioned from this process to a system with punch press machines that could cut out multiple layers of plastic at once.
With a completed prototype of our fully reusable shield, it was time to conduct a new round of user testing. The new design was sent off to dozens of doctors and nurses at Cambridge Memorial Hospital for user testing on the front-lines and to evaluate ease-of-use, rigidity and durability of the shield. After making a few minor modifications for usability, including making the design compatible for those with glasses, The Canadian Shield was finalized and ready for mass production!
Having completed another round of the Design Thinking process, our team was able to walk away with a fully-functioning shield design that met our goals for mass-production and reusability.
What had originally started out as a small project to equip a local hospital, using existing rapid prototyping equipment, turned into a full-fledged medical manufacturing company within weeks. InkSmith is proud to have launched a spin-off company, The Canadian Shield, in response to the shortage of PPE during Canada’s COVID-19 crisis. In retrospect, none of this would have happened if our team hadn’t set out on a mission to solve a problem.
We hope that the story of our journey goes to show how a little ingenuity, Design Thinking and a willingness to adapt can go a long way — and impact thousands of lives for the better.
Just 30 days after this journey began, InkSmith’s newly formed company, The Canadian Shield, was awarded a Federal contract to produce 10 million PPE face shields for front-line healthcare workers across the nation.
If you’ve made it this far, you should be well equipped and inspired to implement the Design Thinking process in your own life. For us on the InkSmith team, this journey has been the best practical execution of Design Thinking that we could have ever imagined. We like to joke that the past four years in education, teaching Design Thinking, have been a practice run for what we’ve been able to accomplish over the past few months.
Going forward, the InkSmith team still remains dedicated to the original mission we set out to accomplish four years ago, which is equipping educators and students with experiential learning opportunities. While our medical manufacturing business, The Canadian Shield, continues to expand to meet the demand for PPE, InkSmith Education will always continue to create immersive edtech solutions designed for 21st century learning.
We’re excited to be in a position, with more resources than ever, to help educators build hands-on, experiential learning opportunities into their classrooms.
-The InkSmith Team