The rapid spread of Covid-19 has led to an unprecedented bottom-up, distributed, frugal innovation response from individuals and maker communities worldwide who have rapidly developed and distributed crisis-critical items, filling shortages and providing a stop-gap solution for the disrupted supply chains. Lucia Corsini and Valeria Dammicco looked at these responses in the light of the frugal innovation paradigm. Their findings are presented in the special issue paper “Frugal innovation in a crisis: the digital fabrication maker response to COVID-19”. We asked them some questions about their research.
Q1. How would you define the ‘Maker movement’ and ‘frugal innovation’?
The Maker movement represents a global and growing community of people which values a “do it yourself” approach. It is centred around an ethos of open collaboration, with makers typically collaborating in local hubs (also known as makerspace or fablabs) or using online design repositories and specialised makers’ platforms. As a diverse and international movement it covers a broad spectrum of aims including social, educational and recreational ones. The Maker movement has been strongly fostered by the increased accessibility and affordability of digital fabrication tools, which allow for creation of physical objects from digital models that are defined in Computer Aided Design.
In our paper we explore how the paradigm of frugal innovation is a good lens through which we can understand the innovation practices of the Maker Movement. Frugal innovation emphasises a “good is better than perfect” ethos. It is about making things that are needed quickly and locally using the available resources at hand. One example of frugal innovation is the Jaipur Foot is a low-cost prosthetic developed in India, which uses polyethylene piping (normally used in construction) to produce a high-quality and affordable solution. Since 1969, over 1.45 million of these prosthetics have been fitted.
We see the recent Makers’ responses to the Covid-19 crisis as examples of frugal innovations that are expanding to new technological and geographical contexts. In fact, we have witnessed the largest mobilisation of Makers on a global scale at a time when supply chains were disrupted and the healthcare systems were under strain. Makers were able to quickly develop crisis-critical items during the first wave of the pandemic and are continuing to do so, on a reduced scale.
Q2. How would you distinguish a frugal approach from other methods of rapid prototyping?
Frugal innovation is an improvisational, flexible and collaborative approach. Although it shares some similarities with other rapid innovation methods (especially in its search for quick solutions), it is less structured and more bottom-up. For this reason, frugal innovation is well-suited to dealing with uncertainty and adjusting to resource constraints. It also means that it is particularly relevant to dealing with crisis response.
Lucia Corsini and Valeria Dammicco co-hosting a panel with Make: Magazine and Makers in the UK.
Q3.The example that you give is of a rapid prototyping approach that was then used for production of ventilator valves – it is usual as this route was used to create a relatively low value in £ product that was urgently required. Presumably a different manufacturing route would be used for this product in the future?
When there was an urgent need for healthcare items, Makers quickly adapted to providing solutions. They were able to do so because of the design and fabrication competencies that are embedded in the community and because of the manufacturing resources available at local fabrication hubs.
The digital fabrication tools available at these hubs (e.g. 3D printing and laser cutting) allow for flexible production. Unlike traditional mass manufacturing technologies, they do not require the same set-up times or change over costs. This means that when the demand is urgent, digital fabrication offers a unique advantage. Distributed Maker networks can also coordinate to meet demand. For instance, the M-19 collective in India brought together 42 maker organisations who produced over 1 million face shields in less than six weeks. That said, we can expect traditional manufacturing methods to offer a more cost-effective alternative to digital fabrication when demand is very high. Many Makers who began digitally fabricating PPE during the early stage of the pandemic, later joined forces with incumbents to help scale-up production using more traditional production processes. In the future, distributed Maker networks could be better integrated into the traditional manufacturing ecosystem to provide a more flexible and resilient production infrastructure. A starting point might be a more coordinated Maker network, which is already underway in the UK.
Q4. How do you see frugal innovation facilitated by digital fabrication altering the manufacturing model? eg Would it enable products to be made more cost-effectively near to market? Would it allow greater diversity/customisation of products?
Frugal innovation is often mentioned as an alternative, more sustainable practice of innovation that stays closer to the real needs of its users. We see digital fabrication as a tool for the frugal innovator that amplifies its potential. We have already witnessed how distributed manufacturing, enabled by digital fabrication offers the possibility to shorten supply chains. It is also hoped that products can be made in a more localised, inclusive and sustainable way and can be delivered efficiently when and where they are needed.
This is exactly what happened in the case of the recent healthcare crisis when local health centres experienced a sudden lack of PPE and traditional supply chains failed to meet this increased demand. The digital and distributed manufacturing infrastructure of the Maker movement allowed for a rapid stop gap solution that helped save lives. We speculate that frugal innovation combined with digital fabrication, can support a more resilient manufacturing model.
Q5. What do you think the lasting legacy will be of the Covid crisis on digital fabrication – is it applicable to other industries beyond medtech?
We believe that the healthcare crisis caused by Covid-19 has initiated a set of positive changes for the future of digital fabrication and distributed makers’ networks worldwide. It has revealed both the full potential of digital fabrication and the hidden innovation capabilities that lie dormant in our society.
These two elements combined are potentially disruptive for industries other than medtech which are presently characterised by centralised and rigid supply chains. An example of this trend is already observable in the increasing popularity of microfactories, which focus on distributed chains of small batch manufacturing that are closer to the points of consumption. Several key manufacturers, such as Local Motors, the Silicon Valley 3D-printed car company and General Electric, have already started investing in their own microfactories.
Dr Lucia Corsini is a Research Associate and the recipient of an EPSRC Doctoral Fellowship at the Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge. Her research explores how distributed manufacturing and digital fabrication can help to solve complex societal problems. Lucia was previously a PhD student in the Design Management Group at the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge. Her thesis focused on Digital Fabrication for Development in the Global South. Lucia has a BA and MEng in Engineering from University of Cambridge and has studied 3D Design at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.
Valeria Dammicco is a RADMA scholar and a recipient of the EPSRC Doctoral Training Program. She is currently a PhD student at the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge where she studies how Fabrication Spaces could act as drivers of entrepreneurial development in local communities and help shape more sustainable, self-sufficient and innovative communities. Valeria has a BA in Political Science and International Relations from University of Bari and an MSc in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship, University of Portsmouth.