Akron Makerspace sends face shields to the front lines in Ohio’s coronavirus fight

by Derek Kreider

At 541 South Main Street #951 a light will be on through the night and into the morning as the folks of the Akron Makerspace work tirelessly to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to workers on the front lines of the Coronavirus outbreak. 

“If the people on the front lines are getting sick, they can’t help to fight this. So we need to keep them as safe as possible,” says Devin Wolfe, president of the Akron Makerspace. 

Three crews keep production running from 10 am to 4 am. 

After Governor Mike DeWine issued orders for all non-essential businesses to close last month, the Makerspace pivoted from classroom and studio space to a de facto production center for disposable plastic face shields and cloth face masks that medical professionals and other essential personnel require for protection against infection.

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While the cloth face masks aren’t rated N-95, meaning they cannot protect the wearer from particles as small as viruses, they are still being provided to essential workers who effectively have nothing in the way of protective equipment. These masks can reduce the likelihood that workers will spread the virus when they sneeze, cough or exhale.

Doctors, nurses, home health aides, and dentist’s offices have reached out asking for face shields and masks being developed by the Makerspace. 

Currently there’s a worldwide shortage of the plastic used to make the types of face shields that the Makerspace is fabricating. Luckily, a local machine shop had a surplus and provided enough plastic for about 6,000 face shields. Already the Makerspace has a crop of them ready.

“Right now we’re sitting on a couple hundred here getting processed, waiting to go out,” says Devin. Before shipping them to their locations, the face shields need to be cleaned and disinfected.

Before production began, there were certain parameters that the creators had to meet. “We had a bunch of different designs and we went to doctors, hospitals, nurses, and the health department, and got approval for a couple of those designs,” Devin says. From prototype to production, the process only took about a week and a half. 

The face shields used by medical professionals can provide “another layer of protection that covers masks and entire faces while extending the life of PPE,” according to MIT.

Crafting the face shields begins with a hunk of plastic that is shorn down to a workable size. From there, a laser cutter is used to shape the shield itself. The headbands are made using a 3D printer, but soon that process will be replaced by injection molding, a technique used in manufacturing where molten material is injected into a mold to create parts en masse. 

“I can [make] a couple thousand a week with injection molding, whereas I can do a couple hundred a week with 3D printing,” says Devin.

The back of the headband is regular elastic, of which there is currently a global shortage due to its high demand for use in production of PPE. Currently there’s enough elastic at the Makerspace for a couple thousand face shields, and they’re already looking for another source if an alternative can’t be found.

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This is not an inexpensive process. Thankfully, the Burton D. Morgan Foundation provided a $10,000 grant to the Makerspace to aid in their endeavor. Previously the effort was bankrolled by a mix of crowdfunding and out-of-pocket expenses on behalf of the members. 

“We were not waiting for the check,” Devin says. “We’ve already been buying stuff hoping that we would get this grant. And if we didn’t get it we were going to just take the hit financially.” 

Now that the grant money has come through, production can increase. However, the grant only covers so many expenses. Crowdfunding and out-of-pocket spending will continue to be main sources of capital for this project. 

The Makerspace itself, while being a hub of activity, is not the only location where these efforts are taking place. The amount of people inside the workshop is limited to 10 because of COVID-19, but there is an additional group of people doing this out of their homes on their own 3D printers. In total there are about 50 people directly involved in the supply chain running through the Makerspace.  

Participation in this project can take many forms. Anyone interested should reach out to COVID@AkronMakerSpace.org, and they’ll point you in the right direction

”We’ll take donations through an online platform. If you want to donate time, we need to figure out where your skill sets lie or what your preferences are so we can kind of push you in that [direction],” Devin says. His team will provide anyone owning their own 3D printer with the program and supplies to craft headbands. Supplies can also be provided to anyone willing to sew face masks. 

When asked if there was anything else he thought the public should know Devin replied, “Stay inside, wash your hands, don’t touch your face.”

Derek Kreider is a freelance writer and sort-of musician hailing from parts unknown. He manages distribution for The Devil Strip. Reach him at derek@thedevilstrip.com.

Photos: Used with permission of Devin Wolfe