The Mask Challenge: Lessons from the Pandemic’s PPE Shortage

by Diana Drake

The global COVID-19 pandemic has introduced us to a new acronym: PPE or personal protective equipment. Hospitals and health care centers have struggled over the past few months to keep pace with the surge in demand for PPE. The World Health Organization has said, “shortages are leaving doctors, nurses and other frontline workers dangerously ill-equipped to care for COVID-19 patients, due to limited access to supplies such as gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, gowns, and aprons.”

While we’ve seen businesses and individuals rise up to address this problem, stitching masks at basement sewing machines and using manufacturing equipment typically earmarked for entirely different products to produce PPE for the market, the PPE shortage has led to lots of business questions. How did we fall so short, especially in the U.S.? And how can we better prepare for PPE demands in the future?

PPE has been a hot topic of discussion during Wharton Global Youth’s Comment and Win contest for high school students. Round 2 runner-up Abby C. responded to commenter Lucy C. with this perspective: “While I agree with your main point that the U.S. needs to have enough masks for all Americans in case of another event like COVID-19, I do not agree that the U.S. becoming “more self-sustainable” for masks is the solution. The cost of producing our own masks in the U.S. is far more expensive than the cost of importing masks. Compared to “supplier countries,” the U.S. simply does not have competitive manpower, number of factories, or cheap resources, Instead, I propose that the U.S. should invest in more masks from diverse sources to create a readily available surplus for Americans when another global pandemic hits.”

“If you are interested in learning more about 3D printing and/or joining a PPE manufacturing initiative, the barrier to entry is fairly low.” — Taylor Caputo, Wharton Lecturer

The Wharton and University of Pennsylvania community can help us understand some of the lessons that have emerged about PPE during the COVID-19 crisis. Michael Ferrari, a senior fellow at Wharton, and Raghu Iyengar, a professor of marketing at Wharton and faculty director of Wharton Customer Analytics, put it like this in an opinion piece for Knowledge@Wharton: “The current crisis…provides an opportunity to learn how best we can prepare ourselves for the next time such a global event occurs.”

Global supply chain management. Serguei Netessine, the Dhirubhai Ambani professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at the Wharton School and vice dean for Global Initiatives, regularly researches global supply chain management, which involves the business of moving goods from their point of origin to their destination anywhere on earth. He has extended his analysis of late to the PPE shortage. At the end of March, Netessine reached out to the New York branch of China Merchants Bank, a company that works regularly with the University of Pennsylvania, to ask for PPE. Within hours, the bank delivered 6,000 masks and 100 goggles to the U Penn Health System.

“I don’t think there was a global shortage of PPE,” said Netessine during an airing of Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM. “Most of it is manufactured in China and in China there is a pretty significant stockpile. There was more of a failure of organizing an efficient way to transport all of this equipment in advance to the U.S. Going forward, we need to think about stockpiling a significant amount of this kind of equipment for future pandemics in the United States. During this pandemic, governments are very quick to shut down the borders, which makes it very hard to do anything related to global commerce, which would otherwise allow us to just transport next-day material from other countries. Stockpiling is the answer, and another answer might be developing some of our own products and capabilities.”

3D innovation. During his radio interview, Netessine championed the “interesting innovations” that have emerged during the coronavirus pandemic. He pointed out that 3D printing — where designs are created with specialized computer software and sent to a high-tech printer, but instead of printing in ink, they print in plastic (and sometimes metal) — is an “important piece to responding quickly to whatever comes, a pandemic or something else.”

Taylor Caputo, a lecturer at Wharton and the Integrated Product Design Program at U Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a specialist in fine arts and product design, has worked in 3D printing for about 10 years.

During the COVID-19 crisis, Caputo has been using her 3D expertise to manufacture face shields for the Penn medical community. “The 3D Printing community at Penn is made up of faculty, students and staff from around the university who utilize the technology for all types of applications,” explains Caputo, who is also a program leader for the Wharton Global Youth Summer Programs. “We are always in communication and collaborating with each other, so we immediately pulled together our resources when Penn Health-Tech created an initiative to manufacture face shields using 3D printing and laser cutting.” In the past few months, Caputo and her 3D-printing team have delivered more than 7,000 face shields to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian Hospital and other health facilities.

Caputo stresses that this kind of 3-D printing is part of a broader trend known as decentralized manufacturing, or making products in multiple places and distributing them broadly. “3D printers are more accessible and affordable than ever, but it’s important to see the technology as more than a novelty or a hobby,” says Caputo. “The power of this decentralization is personified by this initiative here at Penn and similar ones around the world. One of my printers I purchased on Amazon for about $200, so if you are interested in learning more about 3D printing and/or joining a PPE manufacturing initiative, the barrier to entry is fairly low. There are groups all around the world printing PPE that you can connect with online via Reddit and 3D printing forums.” Caputo adds: “It’s been extremely rewarding and comforting to do my part through creating PPE for my local community.”

Managing risk. Globalization can bring numerous benefits, but these come with risks, note Ferrari and Iyengar in their K@W piece (see related links with this article). They consider other technologies as critical ways to be better prepared for the next pandemic. “The tools and techniques…of decision sciences and analytics can have enormous impact,” they write. “Making use of blockchain and location intelligence technologies will allow managers to better identify risk and respond early when a pending supply disruption arises.” In basic terms, they explain that these high-tech solutions will help businesses know where goods and raw materials are and quickly respond to ensure that the right materials arrive at the right places.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

Have you seen an interesting use of innovation to address the PPE shortage? Share your observations in the Comment section of this article.

Of 3D printing, Taylor Caputo says, “It’s important to see the technology as more than a novelty or a hobby.” Why is this? What are some important uses for 3D printing beyond toys, for example?

Michael Ferrari and Raghu Iyengar address some high-tech solutions to tackling issues with the global supply chain and being prepared for the next crisis. Using the Related Links with this article, explore these technologies further and discuss why they are so critical to future preparation.

6 comments on “The Mask Challenge: Lessons from the Pandemic’s PPE Shortage

  1. Hi,
    It was very fascinating to read about the responsibilities society has now versus those responsibilities moving forward in terms of the PPE market. In my history class, my teacher prompted us to view the governor of Washington state, Jay Inslee, call on businesses to assume a war-time role of producing PPE. This involved reallocating our economy’s resources to meet the surge in demand for protective equipment. During World War Two, this strategy from the Roosevelt administration helped meet the demand for military equipment. This relates to the civic duty that is discussed in the article, and how many businesses and individuals are stepping up the challenge in the short term. People like Taylor Caputo, who have used their expertise and knowledge to meet not only the influx of demand, but the necessity of PPE for humanity as a whole. It is truly inspiring to see these sacrifices be made to support those on the front lines. In the long term, globalization and intelligence technologies will help society predict supply and demand shocks, allowing us to react in a more efficient way.

  2. I hear the garage door opening and I know that my parents are home. They are both physicians who today, like many days, left the house before I was awake. I head down the stairs to greet them, but remember that times are different now.

    Since the COVID epidemic hit, it will be some time before I can catch up with my parents and talk. Now, there is the process of changing clothes in the garage. Scrubs need to come off and the priority is the daily decontamination ritual to protect us. I watch as my parents go directly to the basement to shower. They diligently place their N95 masks in brown paper bags marking each day’s use with a Sharpie. It was only two months ago that our school lunches were lined up in the same place. I can’t help but smile to see my father and mother take swim goggles off their foreheads that they have been wearing in the operating room. After learning that COVID-19 could be aerosolized, they recognized that this was better protection than the standard plastic face shield that the hospitals provided. They practice OB/GYN, delivering babies and performing surgery on a daily basis. It leaves me perplexed that our country, known for the most sophisticated medical technology in the world, could be faced with a shortage of such basic needs as medical masks, respirators, goggles and gowns.

    In this light, the article interested me on multiple levels. With regard to the supply of protective masks, there is no question that our medical system needs to be prepared for future surges of COVID-19 and global pandemics. The last thing I want to see is my parents working in a dangerous environment, without proper equipment.

    At the earliest onset of the COVID outbreak, I watched my parents desperately searching the internet for N95 masks. They quickly employed me to scour Amazon, Ebay, and other retail sites to purchase masks and goggles that their hospital systems could not provide. As someone who is interested in business, I could understand and appreciate the economics of supply and demand. Yet, I was disheartened to see the stockpiling and profiteering generated by greed at the expense of public and healthcare provider safety. Going forward, I believe that in the face of a global pandemic, there should be federalization of necessary commodities like PPE. The federal government had an early opportunity to streamline the acquisition and distribution of masks where they were most needed and to control their cost. I couldn’t help but feel frustrated seeing people walking in the park and shopping in grocery stores wearing much needed N95 masks unnecessarily while my parents, on the front line of this battle, were recycling their PPE equipment with some of their colleagues already critically ill due to inadequate protection.

    I was also intrigued by the innovation that COVID-19 has inspired. In the face of N95 mask shortages, my parent worked with other colleagues in the surgical field to find alternative COVID protective masks. Together, we looked at different materials used in the operating room that might protect against Coronavirus. After some research, we discovered that surgical drapes, with a mesh diameter of 0.3 microns, were small enough to filter the virus. We utilized these surgical drapes to make masks for area medical personnel and donated these to surrounding hospitals. By thinking outside the box with this readily available resource, we overcame some of the immediate shortages in PPE. I especially connected with this article after reading about Taylor Caputo and her team’s 3D printing to generate thousands of units of COVID protective face wear. As a student enrolled in my school’s STEAM program I have worked with this technology and explored it’s medical potential for my parent’s benefit and that of the greater good.

    Federalization of accessible global resources, in combination with 3D innovation and alternative use of available materials, will be able to combat surges of COVID, future pandemics, and assist the global community when PPE shortages arise.

    • Hey Zack, I really like your initiative and after contacting my own similar school program with the sufficient resources they want to make masks too. Would you have a design you could send me?

    • Hi Zach! First off, nice job! With a combination of both sufficient research and personal experience, your comment demonstrates your deep understanding of how the United States (US) could better prepare for future global crises. Although your propositions are potential candidates for the direction the US may take, I disagree with some aspects of these propositions.
      As you said, American citizens began hoarding N-95 masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, essentially stealing from front-line workers like your parents. While I agree with the fact that there should be federalization of necessary commodities like PPE, this is not where the main focus should be. As the article “The Mask Challenge: Lessons from the Pandemic’s PPE Shortage” states, there wasn’t a global shortage of PPE. Rather, there was a failure of organizing an efficient way for PPE to be transported to the US. In other words, the distribution of PPE would not have been an issue if the government had been more communicative with supplying countries; hypothetically, there would have been enough equipment for both essential workers and non-essential workers.
      Well into 2021, we can observe one of the greatest factors in the reopening of the United States: the collectivity of wearing masks. With everyone having access to and using PPE, cities like NYC are getting back to normal. Of course, other things played a part, whether it be the total lockdown of cities or the vaccines. My point is this: it is much more urgent to push the government to organize a better way for PPE to be imported during a crisis than to push for federalization of necessary commodities, which would allow certain individuals to be more well-protected than others.
      I also believe the use of 3D printing would not be able to succeed ultimately. How can we address one global issue and completely disregard another? According to, 3D printing is detrimental to the environment. It relies heavily on plastic, releases potentially hazardous fumes, and utilizes an intense amount of electrical energy. 3D printing would allow for not only more PPE but also more negative environmental consequences.
      Although I disagree on these levels, I applaud you for your way of thinking in response to what you have witnessed. Your propositions are definitely possibilities, but I believe there are other ways the US could have been better prepared for the pandemic and could better prepare itself moving forward.

  3. Stockpiling masks before the coronavirus pandemic started to explode in February would have benefitted the United States immensely, and many are calling for the U.S. to start stockpiling PPE like masks right now, but there is one problem. No one has any idea what we need to stockpile. If anyone had known with a high degree of certainty that the coronavirus pandemic would inflict mass stay-at-home mandates and shut down the American economy, the U.S. would have already had a huge PPE stockpile. But no one knew that the COVID-19 virus would become a pandemic. Similarly, no one knows with any degree of certainty what the country’s next crisis will be. So how would the solution of stockpiling be carried out? Would only masks be stockpiled? Only personal protective equipment (PPE)? Would the United States stockpile vegetables, watermelons, PPE, cellphones, vehicle parts, rubber footwear, rubber tires, and a plethora of other essential materials that come from China alone? While I do not doubt that strategically stockpiling certain materials could significantly benefit the United States, it is very important to consider the cost adjusted benefits of blindly stockpiling essential goods.

  4. It was very fascinating to read this article because COVID-19 is not over, and as professor Raghu said, it is more important to learn from this pandemic how best we can prepare ourselves for the other cases like COVID.

    While I do agree what Abby C. proposed that America needs to evaluate the cost between importing PPE like masks or producing by itself, there must be something like plan B for those crisis. It means that under normal circumstances, the United States can meet its PPE demand through imports, but in the event of an outbreak, when the border is closed, the United States needs to have a well-developed, self-sustainable plan. So I’d like to put forward my ideas in conjunction with other countries’ cases.

    When there is an outbreak, the American economy will be depressed. According to research by the Federal Reserve, in the first year of the pandemic, the number of U.S. business failures rose by less than 200,000. And when a large amount of PPE is needed, some of these companies can come together to produce. The government could provide start-up capital and be responsible for deploying people with PPE technology to those failing company. This will not only meet the PPE demand, but also promote economic recovery.

    In fact, at the height of the pandemic in early 2020, some companies in China switched to making masks. As the daily demand of medical masks in Jiangxi Province reached 10 million, China Railway Nanchang Bureau Group Co., Ltd. started to produce masks after 10 days by setting up a project team, implementing the project promotion plan, transforming the plant and purchasing equipment.

    Under normal circumstances, we can all decide whether to import or produce our own according to the cost. But we really need to master the technology or have a plan B to avert peril!

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