In March 2020, as the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States began to swell, hospitals put out a desperate call for help. They needed personal protective equipment — and they needed it fast. The Northrop Grumman FabLabs community swung into action.
These fabrication laboratories, which opened in 2014 in the spirit of the maker movement, provide innovation space for company employees to pursue new ideas and test out potential customer solutions. But they’re also ideal spaces to respond quickly to urgent manufacturing needs. Already equipped with a range of industrial tools and equipment, including 3D printers, laser cutters, metal and woodworking machines and even sewing machines, these labs don’t have to undergo a major facility transformation like traditional factories might in order to meet a demand — at least, not in the conventional sense.
Within weeks, six Northrop Grumman FabLabs located in California and Florida were taking an all-hands-on-deck approach. They cranked out more than 10,000 face shields in two months for dozens of hospitals — with some labs working 24/7. The effort both helped fulfill the immediate need for critical medical supplies and demonstrated that even a large company can become more agile and break through the usual bureaucracies to respond quickly to community needs and innovate to solve problems.
“It was very grassroots, very collaborative,” says Anne Stockdale, an engineer and manager at Northrop Grumman, who volunteered to coordinate the multi-lab effort.
It began with a simple request. A nurse working in an intensive care unit asked her friend Daniel Hubert, a Northrop Grumman design engineer in Melbourne, Florida, if he could fabricate a face shield for her. Hubert researched designs approved by the National Institutes of Health and found a simple pattern made from a 3D-printed headband and a sheet of clear transparency paper typically used for overhead projectors. He prototyped the first one, and once the hospital approved, the entire 85-person staff of the ICU requested one. Undaunted, he recruited fellow engineers from Northrop Grumman to assist. In three days, they printed 150 face shields.
It was clear by then that Northrop Grumman FabLabs could play a huge role. Tony Long, manager, Project Management, and FabLab lead in Redondo Beach, California, put out a company-wide call for volunteers. Stockdale, who has a materials and manufacturing background, stepped in to help coordinate production and distribution. Each day, all employees involved in the effort participated in a quick conference call to report on their progress, discuss materials needs and coordinate fixes on any equipment problems. Stockdale kept the meetings short. One slide listed each FabLab and what it needed to execute that day. Red, yellow, green or blue dots indicated their status. Red could mean a printer was down, yellow might mean materials were on the way, green might mean an order was ready but they needed a shipping address, blue meant no problems at all.
“It was a quick way to get everybody on the same page and figure out who needed help as quickly as possible,” says Stockdale. Crowdsourcing led to quick solutions, whether technical, logistical or material.
Around the country, dozens of employees pitched in. Charlie Mann, a computer systems analyst in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, who had seven 3D printers in his home, produced dozens of shields in just a few weeks. CJ Nesbitt, an engineering manager in San Diego, California, also enlisted his own 3D printer as well as six others at the Northrop Grumman’s San Diego FabLab. His group made more than 5,500 face shields for volunteer medical responders as well as healthcare workers in the area.
Employees outside the FabLabs group got into the act as well. Northrop Grumman’s Additive Manufacturing group, for instance, produced parts that were then sent to one of the FabLabs, where they were added it to the assembly line and distribution. Even some office administrators stepped up to the task. As production increased, transparency sheets, which were much more popular three decades ago, were suddenly in short supply. Stockdale already had global supply chain buyers from the company periodically checking office supply stores for this item, but she put out a request to admins asking them to check their office stock.
“Sure enough, they found them in cabinets and drawers, where they’d probably been since the 1990s,” says Stockdale.
Historically, Americans have done well taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to solving national crises. Perhaps the best examples came during World War II, when dozens of manufacturing companies each underwent a facility transformation to produce vehicles, equipment, ammunition and more for the battlefield. According to Military.com, General Motors started making B24 bomber engines in its Buick factory. Fisher Body, which made auto bodies, began assembling the M-4 “Sherman” tank. Chrysler and Packard shifted some of their production to make tanks and aircraft engines. Oldsmobile started manufacturing artillery ammunition.
During the COVID-19 crisis, Northrop Grumman FabLabs had to retool — but not in the conventional sense. These innovation spaces, designed specifically for prototyping, experimenting and making one-off gadgets, aren’t intended to resemble factories. There are no assembly lines, and products are not made using methods to repeat and reproduce. “They’re playgrounds for engineers,” says Stockdale.
In order to meet the demand for personal protective gear, the FabLabs not only turned into factories, they almost turned into businesses. They had to take customer orders and confirm that they could fulfill them. They had to source materials, some of which were not always easy to procure. They had to output parts according to an approved design and institute quality controls. They had to reproduce the items as quickly as possible over multi-shift operations. They had to synchronize distribution. They had to overcome design changes, meet legal requirements and build partnerships across networks they may not have encountered before.
“How quickly the teams were able to set up and react to create face shields and get everything operational speaks volumes about Northrop Grumman employees,” says Stockdale.
In the end, Northrop Grumman FabLabs delivered about 16,700 face shields to healthcare workers in Arizona, California, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia. They also worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send surplus equipment to hospitals experiencing critical needs. Northrop Grumman FabLabs will be ready to rise to the challenge, should a need arise again.
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