How an Online Electronics Marketplace Pivoted to Manufacturing PPE

Adafruit Industries, a NYC-based manufacturing company, changed operations during the pandemic to make and distribute personal protection equipment (PPE), as well as electronic components for life-saving medical devices.

By Stephanie Walden, Contributor

“Pivoting” used to be synonymous with scrappy startups. But in our current COVID-19 reality, business pivots have become pure necessity. Companies ranging from mom-and-pop restaurants to multinational retailers have revamped daily operations, manufacturing priorities, and customer-outreach campaigns in response to the supply chain snafus and general upheaval caused by the pandemic.

In New York City, the shift came abruptly. In a matter of weeks in March and April, the vibrant metropolis known for its buzzing energy and 24/7 grind all but shut down as it rapidly became the global hot spot for coronavirus infections.

While many businesses looked to pivot with their own bottom lines in mind, others began asking how they could help those fighting on the front lines.

Adafruit Industries, a NYC-based manufacturing company that produces electronic tools, parts, and equipment, is one such organization. Deemed an “essential service and business” by executive order earlier this year, Adafruit quickly shifted manufacturing efforts to make and distribute critical personal protection equipment (PPE) like face shields, as well as electronic components for life-saving medical devices.

From DIY to PPE

Limor “Ladyada” Fried is the founder of Adafruit, a certified Minority and Woman-owned Business Enterprise. She started the company in 2005 from her dorm room at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she earned a masters in electrical engineering. In 2011, Fried was the first woman engineer to be featured on the cover of Wired magazine.

With a penchant for hardware-hacking and a passion for maker culture, Fried wanted to make it easier for others to tinker with electronics in their own homes. She launched Adafruit as a one-stop shop for hodgepodge circuitry, electronics equipment, and kits for open-source and DIY projects. Hobbyists can peruse more than a thousand different parts on the site—heat-vision and sonar distance sensors, USB microphones, components for 3D printing, and much more. The online marketplace also features how-to guides for would-be home hackers and DIY dynamos.

“Adafruit’s mission is to teach the world about how fun and creative it can be to make and build,” explains Fried. “There are a lot of electronics in folks’ lives, but often, they’re wrapped in shiny glass and aren’t easy to learn from or customize. We aim to it easy for anyone to learn and explore electronic engineering and crafting.”

Adafruit moved to New York City when Fried received an art fellowship at Eyebeam, a gallery in Chelsea. Today, the company’s headquarters is a 50,000-square-foot factory in SoHo that employs 135-plus people. The business has grown both in the scope of products offered and global recognition.

Now the company is working around the clock to help combat the pandemic. The pivot has been relatively seamless, notes Fried. “Many of the sensors we use to monitor humidity, pressure, and temperature for, say, home automation, are the same sensors that can be used for health, so there was some urgent demand for those,” she explains.

“It’s tempting to just give up, get sloppy, not stay frosty. But this virus doesn’t care if you’re tired or hungry or sweaty underneath a mask…As we learn more about how the virus spreads, we quickly react to keep our community safe.”

—Limor “Ladyada” Fried, founder, Adafruit Industries

Earlier this year, when the city desperately needed PPE for healthcare workers, Adafruit retooled its factory to begin making thousands of face shields for doctors and nurses across NYC’s boroughs. The company donated PPE to hard-hit hospitals and medical workers. Fried says they were able to make this shift quickly—within about a week.

“We’ve also helped with essential medical electronics manufacturing, providing components and technical assistance to many ventilator projects around the globe,” says Fried. “We were able to provide same-day service when parts were needed immediately.”

In May, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Fried to the Small Business Sector Advisory Council to help restart the city’s economy.

“For us to have a strong restart and get to the recovery New Yorkers deserve, we have to do this the smart way. Sector Advisory Councils will provide the insight we need to successfully open our city back up and protect our people,” said de Blasio in a press release accompanying the announcement.

Rebuilding, Reopening, and Reimagining Education Moving Forward

To date, Adafruit has not had to lay off a single staff member at its NYC headquarters. Even though some operations have been reduced, all team members and contractors remain on payroll without furloughs or reduced hours. There have been no reports of illness on the small team.

Part of this success is due to diligent processes and protocols put in place to keep the team safe, even when they were operating at the epicenter of the outbreak.

“We reacted fast [to the pandemic],” says Fried. Adafruit took preemptive steps even before mandated shutdowns, paring down to 50 percent occupancy early on.

Adafruit continues to evolve with the city’s needs—and now, Fried and team are setting their sights on the pressing need to help students learn from home in an uncertain education environment.

“While we are still providing essential electronics to many ventilator and other health projects, we’re also seeing a rise in students learning remotely,” she says. “For those studying engineering or robotics, or who simply want to have some creative coding fun, our parts are popular. We have returned some of our on-site staff in a safe and smart way with staggered shifts, physical distancing, remote work when possible—and of course, lots of PPE,” says Fried.

The biggest challenge moving forward, she says, will be avoiding complacency.

“It’s tempting to just give up, get sloppy, not stay frosty. But this virus doesn’t care if you’re tired or hungry or sweaty underneath a mask. We have to stay sharp, smart, and flexible. As we learn more about how the virus spreads, we quickly react to keep our community safe. New York City has the grit and stubbornness needed—we just have to be stubborn about sticking to what works to get through this together.”

Those with urgent and specific needs related to the pandemic can contact Adafruit to place an order for essential supplies.

Topics in this episode