Hide table of contents

7 out of 8 of the Givewell top charities deal with physical goods -- anti-malaria nets, deworming medication, and vitamins. Additionally, opening up trade with developing countries is far more effective than any kind of aid because it gives work (see this relevant talk from EAGxVirtual 2020). It seems that there are many mathematicians, software engineers, philosophers, and economists here. A more diverse skill set and expertise would make the EA movement more effective.

By physical goods, I mean people who work with transportation, logistics/operations, supply chain, manufacturing, hardware, distribution, repair, warehousing, e-commerce, etc. I'm sure you're out there, it's just rare to see you giving talks and writing posts about what you do within EA.

I also have a day job in software, but I like to do manufacturing and hardware projects on the side. My goal is to build skills to effectively run the engineering or logistics side of an EA related project in my late career. I've only been working on this for a few years, but during the pandemic, I was able to spin up USA Sewn Masks to provide masks when it was difficult to buy one, and also to be able to pay local people who could sew, who were out of work due to the pandemic. Some of my more experienced friends made a big impact sourcing and importing PPE from Chinese manufacturers -- with the right certifications and quality control processes -- for healthcare workers in the USA. And if I had been more technically skilled in hardware, perhaps I could have helped with the ventilator, coronavirus testing, or meltblown mask fabric supply chain issues.

If you work in physical goods, I would love to hear from you. What does your company do? What's your role in the company?

If you do not work in physical goods but want to diversify your own skillset, comment with how many hours a week you can volunteer -- maybe someone can use you as a volunteer and teach you how the industry works.

PS: thanks to Ben Eisenpress for help with this post

PPS: Further reading about physical goods related to coronavirus

Why hospitals needed to rely on donors to fix the PPE shortage instead of using their regular sourcing methods (also briefly discusses why hospital supply chains are so brittle): https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/3/30/21199526/n95-mask-respirator-import-hospital-nurse-doctor-gofundme-donate

Meltblown nonwoven fabric (used in surgical and N95 masks) production lines typically take 6 months to set up because it's technically difficult: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/03/16/814929294/covid-19-has-caused-a-shortage-of-face-masks-but-theyre-surprisingly-hard-to-mak

GM is mobilizing hundreds of thousands of American manufacturers (small machine shops, for example) to ramp up the ventilator parts supply chain: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/824886286

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:56 PM

I work since 2003 for an automotive company. We manufacture several components for the engine and drivetrain. We also produced and donated some PPEs in the early phases of covid, as other companies in your examples, taking advantage of our advance engineering and industrial capacity.

I don’t think “EA is neglecting physical goods”. I guess EAs think physical goods are provided by the market and don’t see a competitive advantage to take care of the manufacturing. As an example, Against Malaria Foundation considered buying their bed nets locally, coming to the conclusions published here:

This is for the regular provision of goods in standard market conditions. If you are worried specifically in pandemic preparedness or other existential risks which may require an extremely fast escalation of production, I also see this as an area of concern. But the intervention to get better prepared should be advocacy, so the governments and companies proactively take these scenarios into account and invest in flexible equipment that let them quickly adapt the existing production capacity to PPEs or whatever might be needed. I don’t really see the value of having a few dozen/hundred of individual EAs with manufacturing skills when we will require billions of masks. They will be valuable if they are very well positioned in the chain of command of existing industrial companies and can influence their upfront decisions. A kind of earning to give and influence approach, by taking roles of high responsibility not only to donate but also to influence the decisions of companies to become more aligned to EA values. But this more of a management career path than a hands-on career path.

I’m not sure if I understood properly your exact proposal.

I work in physical goods, making an open source low cost biomedical imaging device. There is less funding for hardware development than software only companies/start ups, but we are at a point in mass manufacturing where we can making cheap reliable versions of many life saving tools. Medical devices are made harder due to time to go through regulatory compliance, insurance reimbursements and clinical trials which also add a lot of cost to development. We need a system of innovation that is less encumbered(yet safe) so that we can move med tech forward faster. I am interested in working on(I am doing this currently) such systems - a well-funded open source effort of carefully curated R&D projects, which do not take the risks to make medical claims is the way. Then those who wish to productise for a particular diagnosis, take the open source implementation and go through the venture funnel/insurance and FDA.

Hello!! I think I've seen you speak at local hardware events before. So cool to see you in a different context :)

Hello everyone! Throughout my career so far I've had the pleasure of holding operations / project management roles in a few different industries. I'm familiar with the retail end of supply chain operations and inventory management from my time as a co-manager at a big box retailer. Our store did ~119,000,000 USD in annual sales of combined general merchandise and grocery items if that gives any perspective. We were a big busy store!

I've also spent time in inside sales and customer service for a sustainable greeting card and custom gift item manufacturer. I know the joys and pains of the customer feed back cycle as it ties in to manufacturing operations.

Currently, I'm an IT Project Manager, leading a team of developers building software to help dairy farmers raise happier and healthier holstein cows. We use agile development as best we can in a very old school business environment. As part of a small team, my role also includes a lot of requirements analysis, some UI design, and a healthy dose of stakeholder management.

I love the principles behind EA and really welcome this post! I've read through much of the website and other than waiting for the right operations role to appear on the job board, I'm struggling to figure out how I can contribute and fit into the community.

That's some really broad experience! 

Looking for operations roles sounds like a good thing to be doing. Outside of that, you might consider:

* Joining the EA Coronavirus Discussion Facebook group (there may be discussion of logistics there; I know of a few people in EA who have worked on COVID projects with some physical component)

* Writing about your skills on the EA Volunteering Facebook group (pretty sparse right now) to see if anyone has suggestions

Hi Aaron, Thank you so much for the suggestions.

I've joined the Facebook groups and will keep an eye out for opportunities as I get up the gumption to introduce myself.

The more I learn more about EA and get the lay of the land I'm confident that I'll find a way to contribute.

The thought this post generated as I read: 

Currently, the EA community is pretty good at noticing/predicting problems before they happen. There may be future cases where most of the world is caught flat-footed by something we had already begun to prepare for.

Sometimes, the problems we notice will include some physical component -- that is, our ability to solve them will be bottlenecked by physical manufacturing capacity (e.g. masks for COVID). The more people in the community have some sense of how manufacturing works, the more likely it is that we'll be able to start useful projects that resolve these bottlenecks more quickly. 

We'll also have fewer ideas that are doomed to fail because we didn't understand this topic. I'll quote a Facebook comment from a community member with healthcare experience (though I won't link to the comment, since I'm not sure how large an audience they wanted):

[One unpromising idea that some EAs went for is] trying to get people to work on open-source ventilators, when actually many existing licensed manufacturers can scale up production, but just haven't seen huge demand, as ventilators are expensive and hospitals need to get funding to purchase more, and they need freight providers to get them to the right places, and get staff and PPE to operate them. Also, it's easier for related manufacturers (e.g. in the auto industry) to switch to producing ventilators if the need arises. There are many other reasons this isn't the bottleneck too. In this case I think it just annoys me that people haven't done some basic checks on their assumptions, or checked with anyone about what the bottlenecks really are.

I find this post confusing.

  • The title says that the EA movement is neglecting physical goods.
  • The first sentence of the post states that physical goods are central to GiveWell's recommendations, which seems to argue that physical goods are not at all neglected by the EA movement.

A later sentence in bold says that it's rare to see the people involved in physical goods giving talks and writing posts about what they do. But if physical goods are important because of (e.g.) their GiveWell recommendation, then aren't there actually loads of talks about malaria nets and deworming? And if they're important because of their relevance to coronavirus, I thought, again that facemasks and PPE get plenty of airtime?

I'm sorry if it sounds like I'm being difficult -- it's not meant that way. I just don't understand the arguments in favour of the claim that physical goods are neglected in EA.

I'm just speculating, but I read the claim in the post to be: There's not much discussion / active work in EA on how to improve / spin up the physical manufacture and distribution of physical goods beyond donating money to existing organisations. GiveWell's recommendations and the talks given by AMF/SCI are good examples of EAs noticing others doing important work with physical objects who need money, and trying to direct money to them. But there's much on how to become excellent at doing the logistical work involved, or go further and improve the way the logistics is done.

Yes, I've seen many wonderful talks within EA about operations, that is, running effective organizations. (I'm having trouble finding the links but I think there was at least one panel and on talk at EAG SF 2018) And I ran a panel about logistics at scale at EAG 2017 (https://www.eaglobal.org/talks/logistics-at-scale-panel/).

I wish there were were more about how to actually DO the work directly. I've met a few individuals here doing research projects and thinking about how to do things that don't necessarily have industry experience, and I worry that people's calibration for what's feasible and how industry works might be too far off to make effective recommendations.

To provide a real world example, there was a very prescient research poster at EAG SF 2019 showing that in an epidemic where the USA would not be able to rely on out of country medical supplies, the amount of time it takes to start a factory is too long and therefore we should invest in this area. I spoke with the author to ask what he thought about supply chain issues, like getting all the skills, equipment, and materials to make supplies, and he hadn't thought of it and realized that it would be a bigger issue than spinning up factories.

To take a step back, I believe that 'effective altruism' lower case is something much bigger than people with money earning to give to existing charities, and people good at math calculating which charities to give to. Though I imagine both of those activities will remain crucial to the movement.

I read it as "careers in physical goods"

Two areas in EA that utilize engineering are clean meat and recovering from catastrophes that block the sun or disable electricity/industry (e.g. Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters (ALLFED)).

Every once in a while, I see someone write something like "X is neglected in the EA Community". I dislike that. The part about "in the EA Community" seems almost always unnecessary, and a reflection of a narrow view of the world. Generally, we should just care about whether X is neglected overall.


I'm currently working on productionizing some copper products in a manufacture engineering / product management role. Reuseable grocery bags and gloves. The gloves idea is my friend Ben WR's. I think the grocery bags will work fine because it's a sewn product and we found some 99.5% copper mesh, but the gloves project is more risky because the copper yarn is 30% copper but 70% polyester and may not retain the same antimicrobial properties. So we will have to find some way to test it.

Overall I think it would be nice to have a better barrier between things that may be contaminated outside your home and cleanliness inside your home. Copper isn't perfect but at least after 4 hours you can be sure it doesn't have any coronavirus on it. If the products sell well, I'll see if I can find a way to add UV disinfecting light to the inside of the bag.

I know the CDC said that surface transmission is unlikely but ... i don't really buy it.

I don't work in physical goods (I'm a data scientist) but I am definitely interested in leveling up my skillset in this way. I'm probably only available for 3 to 4 hours a week to start, but that will probably change soon.

Thanks for making this post! This is an interesting observation.

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities