Apr 15, 2020 - Health

The coronavirus shows the limits of our digital-first world

Illustration of a computer chip as an atom.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The world is learning the hard way that ramping up manufacturing of the equipment needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic isn't as easy as scaling up the software that has come to dominate our lives.

Why it matters: Our economy has thrived on manipulating bytes, but to face the threats of the future, we'll need to relearn how to manipulate atoms in the real world. New technology like 3D printing can help by putting the flexibility of software at work in the creation of stuff.

The big picture: "Software is eating the world," wrote venture capitalist Marc Andreessen in 2011, making the case that the tech industry was poised for years of dominance as it spread to ever more economic sectors.

  • The last nine years have mostly borne out Andreessen's prediction. The top five companies by market capitalization are all tech firms, including Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, which are all worth more than $1 trillion.
  • Even staring down a recession that some predict could rival the Great Depression, the biggest players in tech are poised not just to survive, but to become even more dominant.

What's happening: Overnight, the videoconferencing system Zoom became almost as essential to work and social life as the phone. Despite security holes, it has managed to scale up its daily users from at most 10 million before the pandemic to more than 200 million by the end of March.

  • Apple and Google have put aside their enmity to collaborate on a system for contact tracing of COVID-19 cases.
  • Software apps can be designed, tested and brought to market incredibly quickly and cheaply — enabling the tech industry to rapidly iterate potential responses to the pandemic.

Yes, but: Software can get us some of the way to beating the pandemic, but the real bottlenecks remain the lack of products needed to fight and track the spread of the coronavirus, from personal protective equipment for health care workers to the testing kits that remain in short supply.

  • If the Apple/Google contact-tracing project works — a big if — it could enable much faster contact tracing than the old-fashioned way of having workers investigate each and every case.
  • But unless enough mass testing is rolled out that doctors can know for sure who has COVID-19 and who doesn't, a smartphone app tracing our contacts won't be very useful — and the U.S. is a long way from the necessary testing levels needed.

American companies like Budweiser, GM and Ford are trying to retool manufacturing lines to make vital products like sanitizer and ventilators. But American manufacturing has largely declined outside a few sectors, as many products — including medical items — are outsourced to less expensive countries connected by cost-efficient but disruptable supply chains.

  • "The absence of adequate domestic production capacity for things like face shields and respirators ... has left us dangerously exposed during an international health emergency," Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, wrote in the New York Times this week.

What to watch: One possible economic consequence of COVID-19 could be the reshoring of American manufacturing, but that will likely take years. A shortcut is a technology that takes the speed and flexibility of software and applies it to the real world: 3D printing.

  • A Duke University-led task force has been working on using 3D-printing technology to design and manufacture hundreds of face shields for medical workers short of supplies.
  • "With 3D printing you can throw your parts in a machine and get a prototype later that day to test," says Chip Bobbert, a digital fabrication artist at Duke. "Ten years ago this just wasn't a reality."
  • At this point, though, while 3D printing is faster to get off the ground, traditional manufacturing still wins out on sheer capacity, as my Axios colleague Joann Muller reported.

The bottom line: While software may be eating the world, there are still parts it can't quite digest — and those happen to be the parts we need right now.

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