Switching Gears: Nik Lal Discuses Making PPE During the Pandemic

DATE:  May 18, 2020     CATEGORIES:  Community

Masks, face shields, gowns—personal protective equipment and the safety of essential workers and medical providers has been on the minds of Artisan Asylum members since March 24, when Massachusetts issued its stay-at-home order. For the past eight weeks, they have pulled together to research, create, and reverse engineer equipment that has aided the community.

Artisan’s Member Nikhil Lal (left) has been creating face shields and developing a reusable design that can be safely sanitized by hospitals, submitting the design to the NIH 3D Print Exchange program. After being reviewed in a clinical setting, his design for an autoclave shield has been recommended for use by the FDA when fabricated as instructed. With this accomplishment, Nik was kind enough to share some insights into his experiences creating PPE during the pandemic and more.

Q: What have you personally learned during this experience shifting from what you normally make at Artisan’s Asylum to producing PPE for front-line workers?
Ordinarily, I come to Artisan’s Asylum to explore ideas and build vintage electric bikes—an alternative reality version of what would have happened should the internal combustion engine not have proliferated. Switching gears (ha) to PPE production felt like a natural fit, yet I couldn’t have done it on my own.

The most important thing I learned from this experience is that a project is only as strong as the sum of its constituent members. People like Alex Crease, Patrick Luteran, Matt Scheuer, Salvatore Mancini, and Michael Shia made sure that no balls were dropped and resolutely overcame any challenges [we] faced.

Q: What is the most unexpected challenge you had to navigate while making PPE? And what resources were the most helpful?
Learning about the differences between what the hospital administrations want, what the front-line workers need, and what we can provide—and trying to balance all of those needs—was certainly challenging. Having people like Board Member Nicolas Warren step in to broker that relationship allowed me to focus on production and product.

Staying apprised of the M19 Shield project in India, on the Helpful Engineering slack channel, and the Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies Facebook group, led by former Executive Director Gui Cavalcanti, has proven key to maintaining alignment with global DIY PPE production.

Q: One of your designs recently became FDA approved. Can you discuss that experience, and what is your biggest takeaway from it?
Under normal circumstances, working with the FDA takes months to years [to gain] approval. A new program they started [through NIH] targeted specifically at innovation and the open-source community, allowed the timeline to be shortened to just over a month.

I submitted my design through their online portal. Eventually, a representative reached out and asked me to generate an Instructions For Use document, so that anyone who tried to replicate the design could do so responsibly. Following a few revisions of that document, the design was approved!

It was a relatively painless process, but applying early certainly worked to our advantage.

Q: How do you think this experience (the pandemic and making PPE) will influence your future work at Artisan’s and/or professionally?
During the development of the Autoclave Face Shield, I made it my mission to make a design that was 100% reusable and, consequently, sustainable. I think that this mentality will stay with me as I approach future endeavors. It’s not enough to just address the needs defined by the customer. It’s our ethical responsibility to address the needs of the environment, climate, and society.

Q: What do you think about the teamwork and community that you have experienced? What have you learned about leadership in recent weeks?
A big part of leadership without the formality of titles, or an employee-employer relationship, is giving agency to every person working with you—to follow as much as you lead.

In the past few weeks, I feel like I have learned a lot from the diversity of individuals who supported this mission, and I am incredibly grateful that we were able to beat down this path together.

Q: Artisan’s Asylum is a unique maker space with a close community. What aspects unique to Artisan’s influenced your motivation to get involved and/or aided you in the process of developing and creating PPE?
[The Asylum] was the only place in the Boston area that enabled its members to step into impact-driven roles regardless of background or pedigree—but as a meritocracy where the best ideas, the most passionate missions, and the hardest workers were empowered to help as much as they can.

We figured out our path together, reacted to needs as they arose, and had the resources to get things done. And for that, I am incredibly grateful for the community and Artisan’s Asylum as an organization and to [Executive Director] Lars Torres for his intentionality, dedication, and commitment.

With the efforts of more than 200 volunteers and members, Artisan’s Asylum’s member-driven, COVID-19 initiative has resulted in 11,500 units of PPE produced, including 8,000 gowns and 3,500 shields. For more information, visit https://artisansasylum.com/covid/.