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Sharing Manufacturing IP Could Help Us Deal with COVID-19

We need to reconsider how we manufacture goods to dig ourselves out of the present crisis

2 min read

Illustration of a globe riding a conveyer belt with COVID-19 rollers.
Illustration: Dan Page

Back in 2012, Netflix released Chaos Monkey, an open-source tool for triggering random failures in critical computing infrastructure. Similar stress testing, at least in a simulated environment, has been applied in other contexts such as banking, but we’ve never stress tested industrial production during a viral pandemic. Until now.

COVID-19 has demonstrated beyond doubt the fragility of the global system of lean inventories and just-in-time delivery. Many nations have immediate need for critical medical supplies and equipment, even as we grope for the switch that will allow us to turn the global economy back on. That means people have to be able to manufacture stuff, where it’s needed, when it’s needed, and from components that can be locally sourced. That’s a big ask, because most of our technology comes to us from far away, often in seamlessly opaque packaging—like a smartphone, all surface with no visible interior.

The manufacture of even basic products can be so encumbered by secrecy or obscurity that it quickly becomes difficult to learn how to make them or to re-create their functionality in some other way. While we normally tolerate such impediments as part of normal business practice, they have thrown up unexpected roadblocks to keeping the world operating through the present crisis.

We must do whatever we can to lower the barriers to getting things built, and that begins by embracing a newfound flexibility in our approaches to both manufacturing and intellectual property. Companies are already rising to this challenge.

For example, Medtronic shared the designs and code for its portable ventilator at no charge, enabling other capable manufacturers to take up the challenge of building and distributing enough units to meet peak demand during the pandemic. Countless other pieces of electronic equipment—everything from routers to thermostats—operate in critical environments and need immediate replacement should they fail. Where they cannot be replaced, we will fall deeper into the ditch we now find ourselves in.

It would be ideal if any sort of equipment could be “printed” on demand. We already have the capacity for such rapid manufacturing in some realms, but to address the breadth of the present crisis would require a comprehensive database of product designs, testing, firmware, and much else. Little of that infrastructure exists at present, highlighting a real danger: If we don’t construct a distributed, global build-it-here-now capacity, we might burn through our existing inventories without any way to replenish them. Then we will be truly stuck.

Many firms will no doubt have reservations about handing over their intellectual property, even to satisfy critical needs. This tension between normal business practice and public good echoes the contours of the dilemmas facing personal privacy and public health. We nevertheless need urgently to find a way to share trade secrets—temporarily—to preserve the kind of world within which business can one day operate normally.

Some governments have already signaled their greater flexibility in enforcing both patent protection and intellectual property protections during this crisis. Yet more is needed. Like Medtronic, businesses should take the plunge, open up, share their trade secrets, provide guidance to others (even former competitors) to help us speed our way into a post-pandemic economy. Sharing today will make that return much faster and far less painful. To paraphrase a wise old technologist, we either hang together, or we will no doubt hang separately.

This article appears in the June 2020 print issue as “Not Business as Usual.”

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