Scaling an Internet of Production That’s Ready For Disaster Relief

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Scaling an Internet of Production That’s Ready For Disaster Relief

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WAU, SOUTH SUDAN: In 2017, Field Ready supported Water for South Sudan by 3D printing spare parts for their equipment. Wau State in South Sudan is a very remote location with huge supply challenges. Engineer Dr. Ben Savonen later co-founded Kijenzi, a U.S.-Kenyan commercial manufacturing network that had its first 3D printing hub in Kisumu, Kenya.

A radical change has taken place in the last decade: the Maker Movement, makerspaces, and digital fabrication have now reached every country on Earth. This change has transformed the way I work. I no longer respond to emergencies directly; instead, I try to help create the conditions for emergence — the emergence of local manufacturing and local responses.

When I joined Field Ready as a volunteer in 2012, it was still just an idea — a brilliant one — that maker machinery could be deployed into disaster zones to make supplies on demand. More broadly, it was about getting cutting-edge innovations ready for the field of humanitarian relief. Starting operations in 2014, we built a great team right across the globe — our team meetings soon covered Fiji, Vanuatu, Australia, Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Germany, the U.K., and all across the U.S. too.

We were printing medical implements in Nepal after earthquakes. We fabricated search-and-rescue equipment in Syria during conflict. We co-designed and roto-molded deployable toilets in Fiji for cyclone responses. We made soap with toys inside to encourage refugee children in Iraq to wash their hands more often, reducing the spread of waterborne diseases.

We started supporting local communities to establish makerspaces, FabLabs, and manufacturing businesses in places that didn’t have them, most notably in several cities across Iraq. We learned firsthand — and we tried to make the case to the humanitarian sector — that basic aid items could be supplied cheaper, faster, and better if they were made locally; a result that helps more people, more quickly and more effectively. (Indeed, a recent independent evaluation of our innovation in Syria confirms this.)


PAGIRINYA, UGANDA: Together with the Youth Empowerment Foundation, a refugee-led youth organization, local manufacturer Masaf Engineering Ltd. in northern Uganda made siphon hand-washing stations for distribution in the nearby Pagirinya settlements, with Field Ready’s engineer John Asiimwe supporting quality assurance. Matching local supply to local demand using open maps and designs — and without the usual globalized supply chains — is what the Internet of Production will bring to scale.

Think Global, Make Local

Today, importing makers, makerspaces, or other manufacturing capabilities in response to disaster is a last resort.

It is far better — and indeed more in line with humanitarian principles and objectives — to build responses upon existing local capabilities. And I find that, now, these capabilities exist nearly everywhere and they are growing stronger and stronger.

So today, my colleagues and I at Field Ready work with 3D printing companies in northern Uganda to help them sell to the aid sector by providing financing and quality assurance. We support factories in the South Pacific to extend their product portfolios to include key humanitarian items. And we build the capacity of startups across Nepal and in Bangladesh to locally upcycle waste plastic into shelter products. We now work in advance of a crisis, not just in response. We now support local manufacturing, not just humanitarian relief. And happily, several humanitarian agencies — like the Red Cross in Kenya, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration in Djibouti, or Terre des Hommes in Gaza — became part of the Maker Movement as well by building makerspaces or FabLabs to support their educational activities. I particularly admire Habibi Works which supports Syrian refugees in Greece.

The global Covid-19 pandemic brutally but clearly made the case for the local manufacture and supply of aid. The aid community really struggled to operate during the pandemic. It highlighted just how expensive, slow, and fragile our globalized supply chains really are. Major aid agencies started approaching us to ask for advice on how they could 1) find and buy locally made supplies, 2) enable local manufacturing of aid supplies, or 3) even start to make supplies themselves. Indeed, much of my work is now about co-creating initiatives to help the humanitarian sector do these three things.

SUVA, FIJI: In the South Pacific, Field Ready works with local factories to introduce water and sanitation aid products to their portfolios, replacing items imported from warehouses as far away as Western Europe. But in the Covid-19 pandemic, Laisa Meo and her colleagues at Field Ready Fiji were able to quickly pivot to making PPE.

Internet of Production

But the key challenge I think about now is one of scale. A batch size of one is all that is needed to replace a part and repair a medical device. Batch sizes of hundreds or even thousands might be needed by local communities or markets, even in remote locations. But many of the aid agencies I engage with are looking to secure stable supplies of hundreds of thousands or even tens of millions of often identical products. So naturally, they buy from mass producers who are very often not local to where these products are needed — and hence those vulnerable, globalized supply chains are necessary.

The Internet of Production will connect people to find, make, and share their designs, machines, know-how, and hardware.

What if we could network together massive numbers of makers and small manufacturers in every place where these products are needed to reliably deliver this supply locally, and on demand? Ideally this would be done within a single header contract, because most procurement systems favor placing small numbers of large orders, and definitely not large numbers of small orders! What we need is a way for, say, the Ministry of Health in a country to place an order for 200,000 items that can be made in 200 locations near where these items are needed, with each maker/manufacturer producing around 1,000 of the total — and all under a single header contract. Such an approach wouldn’t need mass manufacturing. It needs what I call massive small manufacturing.

Since 2015, I have been part of a community that is building what we now call the Internet of Production.

The World Wide Web has connected people to find, make, and share their ideas, data, knowledge, and software. The Internet of Production will connect people to find, make, and share their designs, machines, know-how, and hardware.

While most “Industry 4.0” initiatives are focused on efforts within factories, within vertical supply chains, or on customization within mass production, the Internet of Production would connect between. And it will reach further than globalized supply chains have been able to reach (perhaps because small, remote, or poorer areas just aren’t viable markets for mass production).

Remember that to really compete, it’s the price the consumer pays that matters — known as the total landed cost. So even if the production cost of a locally made item is higher, local makers and manufacturers can still compete because of the often enormous cost of the supply chain for mass-produced items. The Internet of Production aims to bring down the cost of distributed local manufacturing at scale to something with zero marginal transaction cost when compared to traditional supply chains.

The concept draws upon recent examples, ranging from systems used by makers across France to make millions of items of PPE during the pandemic, to the work of a humanitarian innovator working with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Bangladesh to a U.S.-Kenyan company focused on commercial 3D printing networks in secondary cities. It also draws upon pilots that I was involved in with Field Ready in Kenya and Iraq.

GULU, UGANDA: Takataka Plastics in central Uganda was one of thousands of local manufacturers mapped to the Open Know-Where standard by Field Ready’s teams as part of its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This innovative recycling company had the capability to injection-mold thousands of protective visors using molds and machines based on open hardware designs.

Open Standards

The Internet of Production is being built by an alliance of people and organizations who share these ideas, and who are already helping to make parts of it a reality. Rather than duplicating the work of our members, the Internet of Production Alliance is creating the common language that’s needed to build the network. To make anything, you need: People & Skills, Designs & Documentation, Machines & Tools, Materials & Components, and Contracts & Business Models. So we are developing open standards in each of these areas to help our community connect.

The first open standard improves the discoverability of hardware designs online. Dubbed “Open Know-How,” anyone can use it to create meta-data about their designs so that others can find them more easily online, regardless of how they publish designs on the web. A search engine for hardware designs is being developed. The standard is now moving on to issues of portability and interoperability between organizations and platforms.

The second helps people to find manufacturing capabilities near them. Not suppliers, not products, but machines. An understanding of local manufacturing capabilities enables economies of scope — because you can work out what could be made, not just find out what products are currently available. This was called “Open Know-Where” because it’s an open standard that helps you know where to make things. Some 30,000 machines have been mapped so far — from primary data collection or by interfacing with some existing databases.

By the end of this year, you should be able to choose a design online and automatically find out where it can be made near the location of your choice.

Makerspaces and Local Capability

Makerspaces foster emergence. They help people to learn, prototype, and make. And as we’ve seen around the planet, they can help people to mobilize and respond to emergencies. Many are already essential to enabling economies of scope and so mass producers often rely on them to help develop new products.

I believe that makerspaces will become fundamental to the Internet of Production; they are to distributed manufacturing what cloud services are to the web. You don’t have to own one, but you can access their services to develop your activity. Makerspaces will not only be places of experimentation and learning. They will play a role in organizing commercial production, provide accreditation and quality assurance processes, and be hubs for flows of materials, components, and circular economies. Makerspaces must become civic infrastructures that are funded by government — like libraries, sports centers, or parks. The governments of the Philippines and Bangladesh provide good early examples of public investment in makerspaces for the purpose of promoting entrepreneurship, business growth, and industrial development.

Open hardware also has an enormous role to play. The internet and the World Wide Web would not exist as we know it without open source software, and vice versa. Open hardware will be an early adopter of, and thrive in, the Internet of Production. So I am a big fan and a strong advocate of open hardware. Just like the web, however, the Internet of Production must work for a full range of purposes and revenue models if it is to incentivize people to connect to it. Further into the future, I am excited to see how the Internet of Production might interact with, affect, or disrupt the global patent system.

Open hardware and good documentation allow for anything to be made (almost) anywhere. But most of the engineers I’ve worked with will automatically start designing a solution before they check to see if a solution already exists. Field Ready encourages design and rapid prototyping in the field with and by the communities we support. But I often remind our engineers that if we are designing things then we’re not making things, and if we’re not making things then we’re not helping people; we are a humanitarian organization after all. So I introduce them to platforms and organizations that share existing open hardware designs that they might be able to make and deliver readily in the field.

Across the Maker Movement, I genuinely think we need now to encourage design reuse with some form of prize for plagiarism — something to celebrate the copying and reuse of existing open hardware — rather than continually celebrating the new.

The radical change of the next decade will be to shift the paradigm of production — from mass production to production by the masses.

People who create are happier than people who consume. If the Internet of Production becomes a reality, I genuinely think it will give everyone the power to create (hardware) and to determine their own development. It will help communities to become more resilient, and less dependent on imports or aid. It will restore economic activity in places left behind by globalization and favor a deepening of richness and complexity in local economies rather than having to continue the pursuit of unsustainable economic growth.

Challenges remain in the humanitarian sector. For very good reasons, the aid sector looks at people affected by disaster and poverty through a lens of vulnerability — to see and support those most at risk. But I think we should all view people through a lens of capability, not vulnerability.

Through Field Ready, over the last decade, I have been fortunate to see capabilities emerge firsthand. An entrepreneur in Nepal now running 3D printing companies. A welder in a refugee settlement in Uganda making washing machines. An architecture graduate in Fiji demonstrating plastic recycling to the U.N. Secretary General during an international summit. Young business owners in Bangladesh taking to the factory floor to retool injection molding machines on the fly because they weren’t satisfied with the already impressive quality of their product. FabLab managers in the Philippines helping local firms take new products to market. African innovators making machines to sell to university labs and car manufacturers. And many more.

So I know these capabilities exist the world over. And not only should we build upon these capabilities, particularly in an emergency, but we should continue to support their emergence. And I sincerely hope that the Internet of Production — when it exists — will help them all to compete on a level, local playing field with General Electric, Toyota, or Foxconn.

I think the radical change of the next decade will be to shift the paradigm of production from mass production to production by the masses. And I think we will all be better off, happier, and more resilient if an Internet of Production can help us all make that radical change. 

MOSUL, IRAQ: MosulSpace is a groundbreaking facility created by young entrepreneurs trying to rebuild their futures and the future of their city (after its capture and destruction by conflict with Islamic State). It is one of several makerspaces across Iraq that Field Ready supported, all of which are now run locally and independently. Here, Mohammed Azzam is inducting new members.

Learn more at Internet of Production, Field Ready, and Andrew Lamb.

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Andrew Lamb

the global innovation lead for Field Ready, chair of the Internet of Production Alliance, and CEO of Massive Small Manufacturing. He lives in London and loves Lego

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