If necessity is the mother of invention and crisis inspires creativity, members of Loudoun’s Makersmiths community is literally on the cutting edge.
Around the county, 3D printers are humming and sewing machines are buzzing to produce protective equipment for area medical professionals and first responders. With their spaces in Leesburg and Purcellville effectively closed to the public, members of the Makersmiths nonprofit are finding creative ways to help during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The maker community has the ability to do quick micro-manufacturing and quickly scale it,” said Makersmiths founding member Brad Hess. “People have just shifted their resources and said, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ That’s how this came about: we said, ‘What can we do to help and what’s the need?’”
One team, led by Hess and Makersmiths president John Dubelko, is focused on making protective plastic face shields while another team led by instructor Jessee Maloney produces in-demand cloth masks for healthcare workers and families with babies in neonatal intensive care.
For the face shields, the makers have been using an open-source design by the Prague-based 3D printer company Prusa3D. The project involves cutting large sheets of PET plastic with the makerspace’s laser cutter for the shield, while individual members use more than 25 3D printers at home to craft the headbands for the equipment. A small crew then assembles the shields in the nonprofit’s Leesburg studio.
“It’s kind of decentralized manufacturing. Everybody’s printing at home,” Dubelko said. “It’s neat to see people helping each other out. … People are donating their time and their resources to this project.”
The shield-making team is adapting as they move forward, Dubelko said. They’re currently experimenting with an NIH-approved face shield design which would allow them to expand the reach of their donations. The team is also looking at a new approach to making the headbands for the equipment, which would allow them to switch from time-consuming 3D printing to making headbands on the workshop’s CNC (Computer Numeric Controlled) mill. While a 3D printed headband takes 3 to 4 hours, the CNC version could take as little as 2 minutes.
“We’re really able to crank them out,” Hess said.
The makers are also looking at changing the plastic shield material down the road, as the material they’re currently using is in high demand and hard to find. While the makers have material on hand to make several hundred more shields, they’re already looking at new options for the future. The team is testing a design using readily available 3-ring binder page separators as a possible replacement, Hess said.
The face shields are carefully assembled at Makersmiths Leesburg space using the 3D printed and laser cut components, then put in sealed bags for distribution. Hess’ daughter Sidney, a sophomore at Tuscarora High School in Leesburg, is helping with face shield assembly along with other teen volunteers.
So far, Makersmiths has donated 120 shields to local medical and dental practices and first responders and has requests for at least 375 more. The makers are also starting to 3D print headbands which keep standard surgical masks from putting pressure on healthcare workers’ ears.
Meanwhile, across the Potomac in Brunswick MD, Loudoun Makersmiths instructor Jessee Maloney is leading efforts to make cloth face masks with Loudoun-based colleagues Erin Werling and Teresia Scott.
“We’re sewing non-stop,” Maloney said.
The makers are donating masks to hospitals around the region. Maloney’s masks go to nurses in the forensic medical unit of a Maryland hospital who work with rape, domestic violence and human trafficking victims. The donations allow precious N95 respirators to be reserved for emergency room and intensive care unit use, Maloney said. Maloney is also selling masks to neighbors for personal use, with proceeds going back to Makersmiths for face shield materials and has raised around $200 for the project through mask sales. Makersmiths also accepts donations for the project through its website, Maloney said, and has so far received around $1,600 in donations.
Maloney, who runs a prototyping company called Art School Dropout, does quilt prototypes for fabric companies and uses leftover fabric samples for the masks, including funny and crazy patterns favored by the forensic nurses working with traumatized patients.
“They asked for weird ones because it helps start conversations with people,” Maloney said.
Even as an experienced sewist, it took Maloney a few tries to get the pleating and elastic done right.
“It was kind of a learning curve,” Maloney said. “It was something I’d never done, especially with the elastic… It’s not fast.”
Maloney now has an assembly line approach, but each mask still takes 25 to 30 minutes to produce. As of last week, she had made 175 masks. Maloney says her mother, Denise Simmons, who has made more than 1,000 masks in her community, is a role model. Simmons is a well-known seamstress in Columbia, MD, who was featured on the social media show “Returning the Favor” with Mike Rowe for her volunteer work with brides after a local bridal shop closed its doors in 2017. Maloney has come up with a social distancing-compliant delivery method with her 10-year-old daughter as they do deliveries in their community.
“The smile on people’s faces because they’re scared, and masks are about a month and a half wait on Amazon,” Maloney said. “I got back from the first delivery and told my husband, ‘That felt amazing!’”
While Makersmiths has closed for classes and gatherings, Dubelko says members are coming up with creative ways to connect online. Makersmiths is also taking time during the in-person instruction hiatus to build up content on their YouTube channel. So far, the space has posted two fun baking videos by charismatic welding instructor Jim Waldron with several more videos in the works.
For more information or to donate, go to makersmiths.org. Check out the Makersmiths channel on YouTube for chocolate chip cookies Makersmiths style.