A Field Ready worker operates a 3D printer in South SudanPhotos courtesy of Field Ready

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From a quiet office at Creative Coworking in downtown Evanston, Eric James, Director of Field Ready, sets his sights on chaos and disaster. He is looking for ways his teams of designers and engineers can provide on-the-spot help in areas damaged by humans or nature and help the residents there get back to the business of living.

After Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the U.S. Virgin Islands, Dr. James led a team of five engineers and designers to St. Thomas and St. John. Packing 3D printers, laptop computers, and little else, the team resurrected damaged solar panels to create charging points, places to plug in and charge a battery, which are common in places around the world without consistent electrical power. These help direct the electricity back into people’s homes. “Although the locally existing solar panels may look damaged or destroyed, they actually still work. On Oct. 10, the team finalized one of these and we will be passing on the skills to do this to others,” Dr. James told the RoundTable.

The work in the Virgin Islands is the most recent initiative of Field Ready. The organization has been in Nepal since a major earthquake there in 2015 and in Syria for more than a year, with teams relieving each other after a stint. The method is the same, though: Teams are armed with software and hardware to design and create equipment on the spot, either with local materials or with a Computer-Aided-Design-(CAD)-equipped computer and a 3D printer and with the knowledge to train local residents to do the work.

“The beauty of our approach is that we work around traditional supply chains by using what we find in the places we work, so the results are faster, better, and cheaper than shipping everything in,” Dr. James said. He holds a Ph.D. in international development.

Having worked for nearly two decades in the field of humanitarian relief and development – he started with the United States Agency for International Development more than 20 years ago – Dr. James was looking for a change, but in the same field. “I was lucky enough to work in disaster areas – Somalia, Iraq, Africa – but burnout is very high in this field. I always thought there could be better ways to do this kind of work. … With international aid – where there are unstable or at least chaotic situations – there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Leaving the State Department but not the commitment to international relief, Dr. James went to the mountains: more precisely, to Singularity University in Moffett Field, Cal., near Google’s headquarters in Mountain View. As a teaching fellow/advisor he found his work and studies made him aware of technological innovations that were not widely used but that he felt could be beneficial in relief work. He wanted to be a bridge between first-world high-tech and third-world problems.

“While there, I was exposed to many developments around technology and future trends,” he said. “I had time to think about how to apply them to my experiences as a humanitarian relief worker,” Dr. James said. “There is technology, and there are ways of working that are taking a long time to get out of Silicon Valley and research parks. … If no one is pushing those new technologies and new ways of working, they won’t get to those far-out places – it’s harder to get to a disaster zone or places that are very under-developed.”

A not-for-profit that would have field-ready equipment for relief work appealed to Dr. James and his co-founders. “We wanted to be able to apply these to the most difficult challenges we face on the planet – humanitarian crises.”

Field Ready follows the “hub” model of organization, Dr. James said, with headquarters in Evanston, San Francisco, and Cambridge, England, and 25 staff members, including engineers and designers on call in several places around the globe.

Teams travel light: a 3D printer and two or three spools of filament for printing, laser cutters, and computers with CAD software. Once in the field, they can print out such things as medical disposables and eating utensils, saving the time and expense of shipping those items. Team members “pass on these skills to others through training and pioneering innovative approaches to the toughest challenges. The impact of this is dramatically improved efficiency in aid delivery by quickly meeting needs and cutting procurement costs,” Dr. James said. 

While Field Ready team members might be recognizable by the mission, their equipment, or their on-site work, their clothing will not be a give-away; they do not wear their Field Ready clothing. Under-branding is the byword now for NGOs (non-government organizations) in foreign countries – they do not splash their names around, Dr. James said.

The teams have been well received. Dr. James said, “It takes a minute for people to understand how we approach problems. The impact of what we’re doing can be better, faster, and cheaper than the currently existing alternatives. Once people start to see the results, we’ve been very well received.”

A recent project in Syria shows Field Ready process and result. Parallel teams in Syria and internationally created a type of air bag that, when inflated, can lift rubble from demolished buildings to help rescue teams find survivors of bomb attacks. “We used the ‘Apollo 13’ approach,” Dr. James said: When the Apollo 13 crew members were stranded in space, teams on the ground figured out how to fix the problem and then sent the instructions to the space team. The Field Ready staff figured out how the airbag could be replicated cheaply and efficiently in Syria, using compressed-air canisters and layers of rubber.

Field Ready has made 25 kits, each containing four airbags – at only about 10% of the $5,000 cost of making them in the West – and distributed them free in northern Syria.

A mother and daughter were rescued there in March, and three others have been saved since.

The items Field Ready creates are for the most part not subject to patent laws. “Moreover, we subscribe to the notions of the ‘open source’ movement. As we work on products and services, these are made freely available for others to use and replicate,” Dr. James said.

The teams come with a plan for immediate work as well as for rebuilding, training local people to help with the reconstruction and paying them from grants Field Ready has received for that purpose. Field Ready has teams in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Nepal, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“We’ve been in Syria about a year and a half and could be there several years – not just for the disaster [of war] but for rebuilding,” Dr. James said. “Syria is tricky,” he said. “We’re in a small pocket, the free area – not controlled by the government, not controlled by ISIS. We’re not perceived as an outside group.”

In deciding where to go next, Field Ready directors consider several factors. “Our approach is going to [where] we can lend the most help at that particular time, who we can work with, and what kind of funding is available and what kind of groups we can work with,” Dr. James said.

“There are target countries we’re watching – we typically send in an assessment team to see if the right mix is there. …With international aid, all are working toward the same purpose – to save lives and reduce human suffering through our actions in the immediate instance and in the longer term, build up people’s resilience and put them on a track toward development so they can take care of their own poverty reduction and provide access to things like health care, markets, etc.”

An Evanstonian by birth and an Eagle Scout in his teens, Dr. James credits years here with helping him develop the vision that drives his work. “What I’m able to do is see connections and I think I learned that growing up in Evanston. The importance of humanity and service I learned being a Scout. From what I learned in our schools, I’m able to go all over the world and work with people regardless of their beliefs or what color their skin is – propagandizing worldwide what we believe [here] as a community.

“How do you address that really impossible problem? Well, you do it with science and creativity and hard work.”