Orfalea College of Business alumnus Alan Puccinelli was focused on his company Repkord—a thriving business selling accessories for 3D printers—when the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in mid-March. Using his established skillset as a launchpad, plus his existing supply chain, the Sacramento-based Industrial Technology alum decided to drop everything and found Operation Shields Up, a nonprofit dedicated to manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE) for first responders. Within two weeks, his team had essentially gone from zero to producing more than 1,000 face shields per day. We connected with him in April to talk about the process and how his Cal Poly education helped him pivot so quickly.
What made you decide to shift your entire focus to helping manufacture PPE?
I already had a lot of the experience fabricating—doing a lot of laser cutting and 3D printing and flat packing—and when coronavirus started to impact local hospitals, I just thought, “Well, maybe I can make a couple hundred of these face shields and be of help.” So I made a couple and I got them in the hands of local ER docs and I just said, “Hey, I hear you’re running short on PPE. Is this helpful?” And the response I got was a resounding yes.
You more or less launched a manufacturing operation in ten days, which is obviously a rare thing to try to accomplish.
I feel like we had success because of an understanding of what it takes to create a product and operate at a scale that’s significant and organized. I keep saying this isn’t a manufacturing problem, it’s a logistics problem. The face shield itself is really simple. But to make it in a meaningful quantity, with hospitals in need of thousands, that’s where there’s a lot of struggle. I was in a good position because I have a wholesale plastic dealer, for example, who I deal with in normal times, and he has been crucial in feeding me materials. One of the other amazing things that’s happened is we’re crowdsourcing parts. After I put a call out on social media, people started mailing components. I literally have a manufacturing force of thousands of 3D printers across the world. People with small printers, hobbyists, and also large-scale operations. They’ve all kind of rallied behind the cause.
“I feel like we had success because of an understanding of what it takes to create a product and operate at a scale that’s significant and organized. I keep saying this isn’t a manufacturing problem, it’s a logistics problem. The face shield itself is really simple. But to make it in a meaningful quantity, with hospitals in need of thousands, that’s where there’s a lot of struggle.”
What’s that been like? To be collaborating with other people and to see them responding?
It’s been amazing. To standup a business like we’re doing, if it was a normal situation, we’d be talking about millions of dollars in seed capital just to pay salaries. We have such high caliber individuals helping, the payroll alone would be insane. Now, at this point in the evolution, I’m working to build our sustainability plan. Today I was talking to a dye-cutter who can literally roll-stamp these lenses by the ten thousands. Except there’re so many variables in play in such a fluid situation, so we almost can’t operate beyond maybe a two-week timeline.
Is there anything specific from your Cal Poly education, it’s emphasis on Learn By Doing, problem solving, iteration, collaboration, that’s resonated or helped you while navigating this?
Absolutely. When I was at Cal Poly, I changed majors a couple of times before I eventually ended up in Industrial Technology—after being a computer engineer for a stint and a mechanical engineer for a stint. So certainly, my experience in each of those places played a role. But the problem-solving piece—the logistical thing. It’s been crucial to keep in mind the need to be smart about strategic partnerships, forecasting, about trying to play chess and see all those pieces of the puzzle. Being able to be creative, nimble, think on your feet, and knowing where to ask for and find help, has been invaluable.