From 3D printers to swabs: One start-up’s hard pivot to produce vital equipment

29 Apr 2020

Finbarr Watterson, marketing director, Origin. Image: Origin

In the space of two weeks, Monaghan-native Finbarr Watterson helped his start-up switch production from 3D printers to Covid-19 test swabs.

With restrictions now in force across the world designed to limit the spread of Covid-19, many businesses have decided to pitch in to help. Among them is a San Francisco-based start-up called Origin, which is helping to lead an effort to produce Covid-19 test swabs.

The start-up was founded in 2015 by former Apple and Google employees to manufacture 3D printers, but its printers are now being used to produce batches of 1,500 swabs at a time. Origin is now moving to produce 190,000 per day, or 1.3m per week.

For the firm’s marketing director, Monaghan-native Finbarr Watterson, the coronavirus pandemic has hit quite close to home. He spent many years living in China, where the virus first hit, having made the move to PCH International’s base in Shenzhen in 2012, and remains in close contact with friends there.

Meanwhile, his wife is a paediatrician at Stanford Children’s Hospital, working with immunocompromised children who are at risk of contracting Covid-19. caught up with Watterson to find out more about what it’s like to be producing vital equipment for medical testing.

‘Post-Covid-19, the way companies work together, share information and respond to emergency situations will be very different’

How much of a challenge was it to pivot from making 3D printers to Covid-19 test swabs?

It actually wasn’t that difficult. After San Francisco had imposed lockdowns, it left much of our business very disrupted. Most of the company is made up of engineers. Engineers love to build things and swabs were a good distraction from news.

By becoming an essential business, it allowed 100pc of the company to be focused on producing swabs. Employees were also able to voluntarily come back to the office and safely socialise with their co-workers, which was great for employee morale.

What advice would you have for similar companies looking to pivot to medical equipment?

For other companies trying to get involved, I would advise picking the best tool for the job. We looked at several different Covid-19 applications that could be produced on our printers.

We quickly eliminated devices such as face shields, respirators and ventilators as we could see that – based on our technology – the labour required would be difficult for Origin to scale or to truly have an impact on the situation. It’s important to understand your company’s strengths when deciding what application to focus on.

Are there many regulatory challenges to producing medical equipment in the US?

Being a US-based company, we’ve spent most of our time working to make a medical device that adheres to FDA guidelines. Many other countries in the Americas follow similar guidelines, so it will be relatively straightforward to supply test swabs to those countries too.

For Ireland, the UK and the rest of Europe, it will be on a case-by-case basis. Seeing non-medical companies like Dyson stepping up to produce ventilators gives us a lot of confidence that we can provide swabs under similar loosening of medical restrictions.

What was your reaction to the first reports of Covid-19 in China from friends?

I was very concerned about what I had been hearing from friends there. The movement restrictions in China were much more severe than other parts of Europe and the US that we are currently seeing.

People were not allowed to leave their apartments except to buy groceries and this was strictly enforced. The crackdown was also happened during Chinese New Year, which is the largest travel period in China. This only elevated my feelings of the severity of the restrictions. But in hindsight, I feel that they prevented a terrible situation from getting even worse.

I had also been receiving almost daily reports from my brother who lives in Taipei, Taiwan. They restricted international travel, had temperature checks in public places and restricted travel very early. We can see they’ve largely escaped this pandemic because of these early measures.

Does your work gain added importance knowing your wife is on the frontline of Covid-19 treatment?

Absolutely, it’s been very motivating to hear her stories from the hospital as well as friends of ours who are working in New York hospitals under extremely difficult conditions. Adequate and early testing are crucial to slowing and identifying the spread of Covid-19 – by helping with the testing part of the equation, it will decrease the burden on healthcare workers.

What has your reaction been to various teams across the world to create PPE/medical equipment?

It’s been very inspiring. I’ve been closely following the efforts from Czech company Prusa, who were one of the first 3D-printing companies to develop and open-source PPE face shields. It really spurred on the 3D-printing company of makers, enthusiasts and industrial manufacturers to work together to find a solution as quickly as possible.

Colin Keogh’s work developing an open-source ventilator has also been amazing to see. Post-Covid-19, the way companies work together, share information and respond to emergency situations will be very different and the work being done now will become the playbook for rapid response.