Personally, the COVID-19 pandemic created a situation where I stayed put (without traveling) for 4 months now (and counting). In the 4 months before lockdowns began, even though the period included the winter holidays season, I took 7 business trips. I think everyone agrees that zero flying is not sustainable long term but this period has definitely shown that flying twice a month on average was probably also not sustainable and frankly undesirable. Is there a happy medium and how do we get there? I think the key is to Go Digital! Here are some thoughts on what I think is needed for business to go on in a post COVID-19 world – while this is general it certainly affects the highly fragmented Additive Manufacturing (AM) ecosystem – and I’ll also add another 3D printed potential solution to air travel.
Zoom, Zoom, Zoom
First and foremost during the past 4 months everyone in the AM ecosystem has been using various video conferencing solutions. Zoom‘s adoption took off like a rocket as did its share price: ZM is up on Nasdaq over 90% from the beginning of the year. Microsoft took this opportunity to transition many customers from the clunky Skype for Business to the better Microsoft Teams. Others were not far behind. Turning your video on during Zoom is the new etiquette, presumably to show you are actually concentrating on the topic at hand and not something else, but it still lacks the intimate, connected feeling you get from sitting in the same room with someone, preferably without PPE.
Already several years ago Cisco has tried to address the problem of face to face remote meetings with a TelePresence solution which is done by rooms that are a combination of Cisco technology, 3 or more screens and half a table with chairs coming up to the screens. The idea is that by sitting on 2 halves of a table, one physical and one digital, with the screens it gives the impression we are all sitting at the same table even if we are in 2 (or more) different locations – so long as they are all equipped with Cisco’s technology. This is an expensive solution: just the technology for setting up such a room is 6 digits and if you’re a corporation you will set up many of these rooms and that can get up to millions of dollars in cost. As I experienced it, this is a good yet pricey solution and yet I still missed the hand shake and the intimate side talks as we get a cup of water or just stretch our legs. A lot of business is done in these small chats and the informal meals that follow them.
How do meetings go digital beyond Zoom? The first thing that comes to mind is Virtual Reality (VR: an all digital world) and Augmented Reality (AR: digital content juxtaposed on our reality). Indeed, companies like Spatial offer ways to collaborate using AR and I can even imagine a side conversation happening next to a virtual water cooler in these systems. Spatial has a free version with very little restrictions in these COVID-19 times – I plan to try it. There are several versions of 3D printed or even cardboard folded VR glasses using your phone as the screen. Let’s see. The Spatial solution seems better suited for collaborating with people you know well than for those first time meetings. In these initial meetings in person characteristics such as the handshake and looking directly into people’s eyes (and having them see you looking into their eyes – almost impossible on Zoom) are important as they tap into our ancient instincts and build trust. Maybe an AR/VR custom glove/glasses combination could give us that as well? (Jaguar 3D printed glove for assembly workers above) This isn’t just #AMneeds, it’s a universal need!
Air it Out
Even if one of the AR companies picks up the glove, it’s still clear that in person meetings cannot disappear (yet?) and if we want to do business internationally, or even nationally in many countries, air travel will have to come back to some extent. In a previous post we looked at the airplane reimagines with AM but things are moving so fast that since this post a month ago already there are more ideas on how to do this with AM. Instead of planes being retrofitted to allow for some distancing – which hurts the economics due to less passenger capacity – perhaps there are other ways to protect passengers from the stray COVID-carrying droplet? Teague designed a 3D printed redirect to airflow (up top and above) that can be retrofitted onto planes. It creates strong blade-like gusts of air that are supposed to separate people and protect them from droplets carrying the virus. The droplets are forced to the floor and thus stop being airborne or are pushed into the hepa filtration system of the plane which will hopefully filter them. A main advantage of this design is that it doesn’t hinder the economic viability of the flight as no passenger seats are eliminated. It now remains to test the efficacy of this solution in real life, not just a simulator. Here’s hoping!
Until there is a vaccine, what do you suggest to do with business travel? I’d be curious to hear your views! For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates.