Mara Hitner is the director of business development for MatterHackers, an Orange County-based company founded in 2012 that supplies 3D printing materials, tools, and printing control software. When the COVID-19 pandemic started having an influence on North American industry, Hitner perceived an opportunity to help meet the sudden surge in demand for PPE by coordinating 3D printer time on idle machines. Plant Services editor in chief Thomas Wilk spoke with Hitner in mid-April about this effort. Listen to the podcast version at: https://plnt.sv/2005-BPI
This article is part of our monthly Big Picture Interview column. Read more interviews from our monthly Big Picture series.
PS: We got connected through a mutual friend who was showcasing some of the work that MatterHacker was doing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the Maker Response Hub. Tell me about Hub: what it is, and how it emerged from the current moment.
MH: Sure. Well, we started Maker Response Hub...it's been about, oh, a big five weeks now into our endeavor. And it was really in response to our community. MatterHackers, we're the largest 3D printing retailer, and we started seeing in the community that there were a few 3D printed designs for people that wanted to help with this terrible situation that we're in with COVID-19 and with the shortage of personal protective equipment, in the hospitals.
We started seeing some of the designs that people were coming up with that were 3D printable on desktop 3D printers. Our customers come from different places; some of our customers actually are hospitals. They normally use 3D printers to print pre-surgical models, for example, to practice the surgery before they actually do it. I have some contacts already at hospitals, and I was talking to one of them, and they had this file for a door pull that they had designed, a no-contact kind of door handle. And she's like, "Yeah, I'm trying to print as many of these things as I can, but I just can't print them fast enough." And I'm like, "Oh, well, you're in Pennsylvania, I know a maker space in Pennsylvania that's got tons of printers. Why don't I hook you guys up and they can print for you?" And that's kind of how this all started.
Being MatterHackers, we kind of we know where all the 3D printers are. So we started an online hub where people can sign up: either I have 3D printers and I want to use them to help, or I'm a medical facility and I need 3D printed things. And it's just kind of blown up from there.
Today we have over 4,700 volunteers who have raised their hands and said that they want to use their 3D printers. You know, 3D printers right now are idle. Schools that have 3D printers are closed. A lot of businesses, unfortunately, are non-essential so they've had to shut down; they've got walls of 3D printers, and they want to use them to help. Almost 15,000 3D printers have been signed up on our hub to help and they've all just been printing.
They've been printing mostly the visors for the face shields, but also some of these mask extenders that we're starting to see designs for. It's just been remarkable. We've never seen anything like it. We’ve just sent 36,000 3D printed face shields and PPE to 135 facilities across the country, and we only ship to hospitals that have requested, "I want this number of this particular model in this material, and we agree to disinfect it when it shows up."
All of us with these 3D printers – businesses, schools, individuals, small businesses – we've been here for a few years, just kind of waiting for someone to call us into action and give us a purpose like this. As soon as the community saw this opportunity to help, it started making these designs that were very easily printable in inexpensive material with inexpensive machines. We're talking about like the sub-$5,000-6,000 machines, and some of them are under $1,000. What these 3D printers might lack in speed individually we make up for in sheer numbers and accessibility.
We really found that we were able to do this sort of distributed, localized, on-demand 3D printing. It was an amazing proof of concept of something that we've been saying we could do for years, but we never really had a chance to prove it, and I wish it were under better circumstances. The fact that we could all band together as a community in an emergency, it's been incredible to watch.
PS: When we spoke a little bit last Friday you mentioned that, in this specific historical moments, you were keeping pretty long hours and part of that was because there's an urgency and at some point, that immediate moment is going to let up, but for now there's a need and a demand for what you’re providing.
MH: Exactly. We all know that the 3D printed PPE is a stopgap. It's almost like mass production of prototypes. We're already starting to see some of these designs being injection molded and being made thousands and thousands a day, which is what is needed and that's what should happen until, of course, the regular PPE gets back into circulation.
But again, just looking at what we've been able to accomplish, it's not just MatterHackers. We've shipped 36,000 pieces, but there are grassroots organizations across the country and around the world that are just shipping thousands and thousands of pieces all by volunteers, all by donation only, people using their own time, their own money, and their own materials to pitch in. And it's really shown what we can do quickly in an emergency. We all know that the need for 3D printed pieces for this particular application will end, and hopefully sooner rather than later.
The Hub is going to be really useful moving forward, whether it's for the next emergency, or being able to respond quickly to needs like a hurricane or fires, something like what happened in Puerto Rico or Haiti where maybe somebody designs a little bracket to help fix solar panels or something to that effect. And until we can go and get them injection molded, maybe this group can do a couple thousand, a couple of hundred thousand of these little pieces and really make a difference, and help with the design process and help to get solutions moving until we've kind of figured out a solution and are able to mass-produce it.
PS: That’s a really interesting point, because one of the things that we've looked at in Plant Services recently is the importance of a response plan on the part of our readers, who are primarily maintenance and reliability professionals. Part of their job is to help guide the sourcing of parts and equipment, and to help manage inventory. More and more when you see things like the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the supply chain, and you see things such as what happened last September where you had a drone bomb a Saudi Aramco facility, a response plan is crucial for mitigating risk in that company. As you say, there's going to be a time when operations can return back to normal. But in the meantime, organizations like the Maker Response Hub are going to fill that gap, fill that need, and help drive even quicker recovery.
MH: Yeah, I think so, and I think we can also potentially start to see how it can be used on a small scale. All of it is incredible, but some of our customers are businesses that have 10, 50, or 100 3D printers that they use for their regular business. For example, Gantri in the San Francisco area, they make 3D printed lamps and normal for them is to have 100 printers going making these lamps. When this tragedy hit, they had to shut down as they were not designated an essential business, but they were able to pivot their production, literally in days to be able to print hundreds of these face shield parts every day, and then work with MatterHackers to ship those to places that need it. We've seen that with architecture firms in New York. We've seen that with Etsy shops that have 20 printers. They're able to pivot their production so quickly.
When you think about a response plan, even within a company or on a shop floor or in a plant, if there's an emergency within the company and they have these 3D printers in house, they can pivot their production in hours to be able to respond to an emergency, whether that's internal or national or somewhere else in the world.
PS: Let’s talk about MatterHackers itself. Can you tell us more about the company and how you got involved?
MH: Yeah, it feels like I have to remember back to what we used to do, this has been such a 24/7 thing for the past few weeks. Like you said, I mean, the whole community has just been, you know, running literally 24/7 because that's the schedule that these people in the hospitals are working, so if they're working, I'm working.
Our whole motto is to enable anyone to make anything. Under normal run of things, www.matterhackers.com is where you can go to see what's new with desktop 3D printers and materials. Businesses and schools, and major global corporations like to work with us because we are completely agnostic. We sell over 70 different types of 3D printer brands, and over 2,000 different kinds of materials. And that's everything from your standard PLA or ABS, to composites like nylon with carbon fiber, or nylon with Kevlar. We even have a BASF stainless steel product that you can actually print models in stainless steel from your desktop 3D printer.
Businesses like working with us because we can kind of help whether you're new to 3D printing or if you want to expand your fleet. People come to us and say, "Here's what I want to do, but I don't know which printer or which material is going to be right for me." MatterHackers is a perfect place to go because we sell so many different brands, and we're completely agnostic, so we help to guide people through getting their printer and making sure they have the right materials and the right machines.
We have free phone and e-mail support for everything that we sell, and offer all sorts of discounts for schools and nonprofits. We’re also very active in workforce development and training. And between the 3D printers that we carry, then we also have some desktop laser cutters, laser engravers, vacuum formers, and CNC machines – whatever it is that you need to make, we are here to help you do that. We’re based in Orange County, but we also have two warehouses, one in Orange County and one in Pennsylvania, so we can get your two-day free shipping anywhere in the country.
PS: We've got a lot of engineers who will be listening to this podcast and a lot of makers, often both. When you joined MatterHackers, was it the 3D printing sector that you felt drawn to, or did they reach out and find you?
MH: My origin story is that actually, I personally come from none of this. I sing in rock bands, and I used to work in advertising. But like many in 2014, I started seeing stories about 3D printers and I just got fascinated. I wish I had an engineering background, I wish I had a degree in mechanical engineering, but I don't. I was really drawn to the creative aspects of it.
I had never really thought about the fact that any product that I have in my home or my office started as a prototype and had to go through iterations. And then the fact that I thought, "Well, here's a machine that I could literally have in my house and I could make my own things." I mean, my brain exploded. And I went down the rabbit hole and started going to trade shows to learn what it was all about.
I met MatterHackers and convinced them to give me a job because I'm in sales – I see where the opportunities are and try to see how I can help. And it's been amazing. I just had my five-year anniversary at MatterHackers and with 3D printing. MatterHackers has grown so much. I was employee number 16, and we're right around the 50 mark right now.
I continue to be blown away by the applications of 3D printing, everything from kindergarten classrooms to mass production. It's just fascinating.
PS: It is. We did our first cover story of 3D printing (February 2016) around the same time that you joined MatterHackers. At that time, the more mature sector in 3D printing was the metals sector because aerospace had an idea what they wanted to do with it. People were trying to figure out what the killer app would be for the carbon polymer side. And I'm just struck by how, during this moment that we're living through right now, if people were not persuaded of the versatility and the immediacy of 3D printing to solve problems, this moment is going to put those questions to rest. This is what 3D printing does best.
MH: That's exactly it, and I agree with you. Still to this day, the most fascinating things are coming from metals and the more industrial machines. But I think what's really amazing in the past five years is how far these desktop 3D printers have come. They're no longer just little toys for the garage that make little plastic things. The fact is, you can make not just functional prototypes, but actual end-use parts in materials that are so usable. You've got major chemical companies like BASF and Dow and DuPont that are making 3D printing filaments for the same polymers that previously were only available in injection molding.
Six weeks ago, the usual conversation that I would have with people is, "Yes, you can print nylon and carbon fiber on a $2500 3D printer. And yes, you can print stainless steel that can then be sent to debinding and sintering, and come back as a full metal part on your $1,500 3D printer." There's a reason why we have over 2,000 SKUs of material. And MatterHackers actually works directly with chemical companies to develop new materials for FDM, and we also have some inexpensive SLA 3D printers, the resin 3D printers. We work with the chemical companies to develop materials in reaction to feedback that we get from our customers, including aerospace and automotive. But then we also are working with visual effects and props and costumes, and architecture. Almost every industry out there is using 3D printing for something, or at least using 3D design for something, and if you're going to have a 3D design, you probably want to make it and be able to look at it and touch it, get feedback on it.
PS: I'm curious to know, since we're still in this historical moment, we're six weeks in, what else have you heard about the way manufacturers are responding to the pandemic? I mean, one story I've heard is that there's been a priority placed on safety in the sense that they're re-engineering the production lines to make sure there's 6-foot distance between operators. Sometimes they'll put a plastic shield in between operator stations. Are you hearing stories about how these larger or mid-sized manufacturers are responding to the situation?
MH: With our warehouse, you know, everybody's wearing gloves, everybody's wearing a mask. Now we have lots of face shields, so you can wear the face shield. We've got hand sanitizers all over the warehouses. It's just amazing the kinds of things that we have to think about now that we never thought we would think about.
I think it will probably change the way that manufacturing is done from now on, and the way that offices are set up, and hopefully the way that people think about their own health, and how their health affects the health of people around them. Think of the cold season, for example, when one person comes in with a cold and you're just like, "Oh, now everybody's going to get a cold," and everybody gets a cold and it's just kind of accepted.
Why is that accepted? Why is that okay? It interrupts productivity, and people bring that back to their families. What can we do now that we've been forced to explore these new or different ways of doing business, whether that's working from home, telecommuting, video conferencing, or not traveling as much? It's interesting to start to speculate what this is all going to look like and how much more productive we could be when using these tools so that we are literally just not getting each other sick all the time. Even just that basic thing.
PS: The one KPI that I'm pretty sure all of our listeners would know about their plans is the cost of a minute of downtime. And like you're saying, that it's going to get to the point, I believe, where organizations will take a look at the health aspects of downtime, and as you say, make sure that something like a transmittable disease or a virus gets factored into the bottom line and helps drive reliability going forward.
MH: I wish all of this were under better circumstances, but I do hope that people are seeing 3D printing and additive manufacturing in the news a lot more, and that they start to understand the difference between, for example, the test swabs that are being 3D printed, and how that process and that level of materials and machines, how they differ than the machines that are doing the plastics that you may have at home, or that your kids may have at the robotics class. And no, those are not appropriate for, you know, making surgical masks that are going to be approved by the FDA for actual surgeries, and no, those are not appropriate for the swabs. But they're super appropriate for something like the visor for a face shield or these mask extenders that they're using now to protect your ears for people that have to wear N95 masks all day, every day.
I'm hoping that that kind of starts to trickle out to the general population, and that there's more of an understanding of not only did 3D printing not disappear in 2014, like a lot of people think that it did when the fad was over. Not only are they still around, but they've been very useful in a lot of different applications, and that they could be useful for your hobby or for your business or for something that your kids are passionate about. And I’m hoping that people start to really understand the capabilities and the limitations.
Also, the fact that you can go to your local library and get trained (is important), whether you're a young person, or somebody that maybe wants to start a new career, or you're a veteran, or a creative person that is looking for another outlet for your creativity. Libraries and training centers, they have 3D printers, they have sewing machines, they have CNC machines, they have recording booths to do your podcast. People realize how much technology and how much creativity is really right at their fingertips.