In a matter of weeks, the need for front line personal protective equipment (PPE) has skyrocketed. When the governors of both New York and Massachusetts put out their calls for help, we recognized our duty to assist. A Lovepop card does not look much like an ANSI Class III medical gown or for that matter anything like a barrier face shield, but the efforts to design, engineer, and manufacture it are much the same. We pulled together the best people we knew to pivot our operations rapidly and worked around the clock for the past weeks. After taking some roads in different directions, we're now releasing our first product. As of today, 10,000 face shields are entering production, with a goal to ramp production to 40,000 per day shortly, and however far we need to go to meet demand.
What follows is the story of how we got here and where we are going with this project.
On Thursday, March 12, with news of the rapidly growing number of COVID-19 cases in California, Massachusetts, and New York playing on the news in the background, I initiated a conference call with my Harvard Business School classmate Pierce Schiller and Lovepop's head of supply chain, Emilio LaTorre. Pierce is a bioengineer who has built a handful of companies and the person I thought would be best able to quickly understand where the biggest areas of need were and what we could do at Lovepop to help. Emilio runs our manufacturing operations and has a deep understanding of our capabilities and how we can put them to use. Since that first phone call, Pierce, Emilio, and I have worked around the clock to bring Lovepop resources to bear on solving the biggest COVID-19 humanitarian challenge: How do we get high-quality PPE to our healthcare providers fast and in a trusted, transparent way?
We joined several Partners Healthcare working groups (they run Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital, as well as other world-class healthcare facilities) and were connected with the Massachusetts State Government Manufacturing Emergency Response Team (M-ERT), a 60-person team dedicated to addressing the dire shortage of PPE in the state. And we learned the areas of most need: N95 respirators, surgical masks, face shields, gowns, hoods, coveralls, and hospital beds. Our team started our research. What could we help create?
When John and I started Lovepop, people often wondered, "Why are two naval architects and marine engineers starting a greeting card company?" But for us, it made perfect sense. We were applying all of our ship design skills to paper art. Building a slicegami Lovepop card is like building a ship in miniature. The 3D model we start with for every card design is much like a traditional ship's lines plan. And in production, rather than cutting large pieces of steel and hoisting them into place, and welding them together, we cut paper on state-of-the-art laser cutters and craft the cards by hand with some clever engineering and a tiny bit of glue.
When we describe our PPE development efforts, people seem to have those same familiar wonders. Today, we are not just two naval architects starting a greeting card company, we are an entire organization applying its capabilities in making 3D cards to the challenge of producing high-quality PPE. Everywhere you look, members of the Lovepop team are working to retool ourselves for a wartime production effort against COVID-19.
Masks, our first failure
From day one, it was clear that there was going to be an overwhelming need for N95 respirators. A standard Lovepop card happens to be about the exact size of a face mask, which meant that refocusing our many industrial laser cutters from cutting paper to cutting components for this needed PPE would be straightforward. We quickly mocked up prototypes using the fabrics we had on hand and even conducted various fit tests as we refined our designs. What was not straightforward, however, was how to source the required materials to create a respirator that would perform to the necessary levels. As we would come to learn, there is a global shortage of a material known as meltblown polypropylene.
Meltblown polypropylene is a disposable filter media that has become the gold standard for stopping virus particles in respirators. It is sold by the ton on neatly rolled cardboard spools and looks more like white cotton candy than a lifesaving medical device. Manufacturers purchase the material and layer it with other things to convert it into the respirators that you see on the news as being in such short supply. After identifying the material we needed to develop N95s, it became clear that there was a massive global shortage of meltblown polypropylene. Making masks is not the issue. Making the filter media is. As we spoke with more and more people, it became clear that it would take six months and extremely technical know-how to stand up the production capabilities of this filter. While this inspired a very important parallel effort to give the U.S. a secure domestic long-term supply of meltblown filter material, we shelved the mask-making effort for the time being. We just didn't feel we were solving the biggest problems if we were to make respirator masks without a meltblown filter.
The face shield
As we realized the complexity of creating a NIOSH-certified N95 mask, we decided the quickest contributions we could make to the national PPE efforts were through desperately-needed face shields. If we focused on it, we could make 40,000 a day and help to supply one of the products M-ERT was trying to source. So, we doubled down on our efforts to source all the materials and stand up face shield production.
Initially, we thought designing the face shield would be easy. Then, the M-ERT sent us a list of requirements - the distance from the forehead to the shield, the width, fogging tests, and many other features. However, the most difficult requirement was the biocompatibility of the materials. The foams and elastic we had originally sourced turned out not to be biocompatible, so we continued searching for alternatives.
We pivoted our die cutters, which usually are cutting card covers, to cutting sheets of PET biocompatible sheets to create a clear face shield. Instead of assembling cards, our prototyping team has been making face shield prototypes. Our sourcing team, which is usually sourcing a complex range of high-quality craft papers and meticulously testing those for their properties under different conditions and applications, has been scouring the globe for high-quality non-woven fabrics, biocompatible foams and sheets, biocompatible elastics, and idle garment manufacturers who can convert materials into usable articles of PPE.
At the same time, we had to research every relevant regulation to make sure our written materials fully complied with the applicable standards and regulations and would allow our face shield to be purchased by those customers who needed it most, whether they be the state, healthcare systems, or individuals across the country. Every day, we watched the FDA emergency authorizations and amended our label and design accordingly.
Finally, we got the go-ahead in an email that said: "Bombs Away!" Our label is approved. Our design is approved. We are ready for production. As of this moment, 10,000 face shields are being made in our first production run. Over the next couple of weeks, we plan to ramp up to make over 40,000 per day. We are exploring ways to increase production to 100,000 per day. If there is a need, we will do everything in our power to help.
As with everything we do, we added a little magic to our face shields. We felt it was important for people to feel good about donning our gear, and for their patients to feel reassured by the person caring for them. That’s why we added the rainbow pattern and the “I’m here for you” message. Special thanks to Kathie on our design team, who dropped everything to turn these labels around in record time.
With these face shields, we want to get them to anyone who needs them as fast as possible, so we are pursuing three paths of distribution:
- We are working directly with the state of Massachusetts and our local and regional healthcare systems to send direct bulk shipments to the hospitals in our area.
- We are asking our customers to share this blog with anyone who needs face shields from a reputable source but cannot get a solid supply.
- We are making them available in case pack boxes of 160 on our website. We have received interest in buying them in small quantities for personal use or workforce protection (e.g., grocery store cashiers, and other positions that need this equipment), and we may be able to support that in a few weeks. For now, we are only selling boxes of 160 to ensure that we can quickly get them to the places with the greatest need.
Gowns and protective coverings
Now that our face shields are in production, we've been able to focus more effort on additional equipment. We have received our first lab tests on the prototypes of our first gowns and head covers and are developing multiple prototypes per day in partnership with the M-ERT. Believe it or not, the gowns are actually much more difficult to get right. The material qualities are key. And everything we are doing, we are doing with an eye for scale so we can help the greatest number of people. If we can't make 10,000+/day, we're not considering it. And at 10,000 gowns per day is over 4 tons of non-woven medical grade fabrics per day. Our sourcing team is working around the clock to find accurately specified material and incorporate it into new prototypes as fast as we can, to get those off to the lab for testing. In the next week, we hope to have Level 1, 2, and 3 gowns certified and going into production.
Our team prototyping new gown and hood designs
The Partners Healthcare working groups continue to push us to go further in our product development. For example, there may be a shortage of hospital beds as field hospitals continue to pop up. To try and address this, we are applying technology from the card designs we used for the 2017 Billboard Music Award winner announcements to make a fiberboard cot that folds flat, and ships by the pallet.
From Billboard Music Award card design to Lovepop Emergency Cot
Similarly, we will likely need more protection for people who are performing COVID-19 tests outside of hospitals. Our production team quickly turned around a prototype on a new concept for an isolation chamber that protects health workers administering tests or performing any activity where they come in contact with an influx of potentially infected individuals.
Prototype of our isolation booth
If you are working in a setting where either of these pieces of equipment could be useful to you, please don't hesitate to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I want to say how impressed I have been with everyone I have met throughout this journey. Subject matter experts willing to take phone calls at 11 pm on a Saturday night, advisors rescheduling business meetings to help us refine our offerings, and material suppliers going above and beyond to help us identify alternative materials to supplement a disrupted supply chain. It has been inspiring to see what's possible when everyone is working towards a big goal and with a common purpose, and all under an incredibly tight deadline.
I want to thank the entire team for jumping into this project with incredible enthusiasm. Special shout out to:
- Pierce & Emilio for the long nights and early mornings, working around the clock to get this project off of the ground.
- Our sourcing, prototyping, safety, and facilities teams for quickly switching priorities and sourcing completely new materials and new testing procedures.
- Our fulfillment team for creating an entirely new picking line in the warehouse to get these goods to the places they are needed most.
- Our prototyping team for rapidly developing entirely new designs and iterating on them multiple times per day.
- Our Quality Assurance team for adapting to these new products and ensuring Lovepop feels proud about every item we make.
- Our logistics team for opening up multiple new lines of supply to ensure that our shipping operations can keep products flowing, and ensuring we can make delivery windows on these brand new products.
- Our design team for dropping everything to make labels, prototype renders, and product photos on a completely new category of product.
- Our sales, happiness, and retail teams for coordinating with customers, state and federal agencies, as well as healthcare systems to identify the places of greatest need and get our products there.
- The Partners Healthcare working groups, and the M-ERT who have helped us get approved as an alternative PPE supplier.
- The Lovepop board for your support and commitment to make this entire effort possible.
We're in this together. Let's all continue to work together to overcome this.
Wombi Rose, CEO & Co-Founder of Lovepop