One silver-lining of the 2020 pandemic has been the tens of thousands of brands that have expressed support for the first responders on the front lines. But few companies have had the existing infrastructure to help make a difference, like SmileDirectClub’s army of printers that have since been drafted to create personal protective equipment (PPE).
Alex Fenkell, SmileDirectClub’s co-founder, has worked with co-founder Jordan Katzman and the company’s team to transform the existing business model of 3D-printing custom-made, clear plastic aligners for teeth straightening, to printing and delivering essential face shields, ventilator parts, and other items.
Since the start of the pandemic, SmileDirectClub has delivered more than 40,000 face shields to everywhere from hospitals to pharmacies — and the company has no intention of stopping any time soon. Alex Fenkell answered our questions about the company’s new normal, and what to expect in the future.
Q: When the pandemic began to pick up steam, what were your first thoughts on how SmileDirectClub could help those in danger?
Alex Fenkell: Our immediate instinct, as a company, was to think about how we could take what we had in place and turn it into something that truly helps first responders. We kept hearing, again and again, how nurses, doctors, EMTs, pharmacists and others were struggling to get the PPE they needed to protect themselves as they helped the sick. We heard about how equipment like masks and face shields were being reused, and how that was putting lives at risk. We knew we needed to do something quickly, and we came up with a plan to turn SmileDirectClub into a sort of manufacturing hub for first responder equipment.
Q: What did it take to divert energy and resources to creating the PPE equipment?
Alex Fenkell: SmileDirectClub team members are known for innovative ideas. We are, in many ways, a company built using innovation. So when it came to leveraging what we had in place, the employees offered many ideas on how the high-tech 3D printers could help deliver what was needed to people on the front lines. Once the team agreed to turn the power of the printers into creating face shields and other equipment, it was a matter of looking at capacity. We wanted to print as many face shields and other items as possible. We wanted to truly make a difference.
Q: Tell me more about these 3D printers and how they came into play:
Alex Fenkell: Last year, before the pandemic hit, we decided to put an army of printers into place to create the clear teeth aligners that we send to customers in the mail. We chose HP’s Jet Fusion 3D printer for accuracy, speed, and even smoothness, and planned to have around 60 printers working day and night. The level of detail was critical in the decision to use these particular printers. But once COVID-19 began to raise alarms and America started going into lockdown, we decided as a company to deploy the printers to create PPE for first responders and important healthcare workers on the front lines. It’s an excellent fit! These printers are capable of producing thousands of face shields per day, and we’ve been creating a steady stream of them since the pandemic started. We’ve sent our face shields to hospitals and health systems, pharmacies and other places, and we’re always looking for more places that need this vital equipment. We’re also interested in printing other essential goods for first responders and hospitals, including valves for respirators. We want to help in any way we can.
Q: How has the process been, since SmileDirectClub began shipping PPE?
Alex Fenkell: It’s been very positive! We’ve had to build up a network of distributors and go-betweens to get our PPE in the right hands, and that means a lot of phone calls and emails and communication. For instance, a hospital may need PPE, but the hospital administration might have a strict procedure for getting what they need, so that can be a challenge. The PPE that goes to the people caring for the sick, whether that’s at the window at a pharmacy or in a busy intensive care unit, has to be reliable. We’re introducing ourselves as that source and delivering what’s needed on a steady basis, but sometimes it requires us to build up relationships, answer a lot of questions, and show that what we plan to deliver will actually be delivered. We’ve heard the horror stories about first responders using the same mask for days, or creating their own PPE out of garbage bags. What we’re trying to do is make it so an essential worker can always have what they need when they interact with patients, and not have to worry about how they’re going to protect themself day in and day out.