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Inside Bay Area makers' rush to solve the PPE shortage

On Thursday morning, two tons of rolled sheet plastic arrived at a warehouse in Alameda. By the end of the weekend, it had become 16,000 plastic face shields — a critical tool for frontline medical workers in the fight against COVID-19.

That remarkable turnaround is entirely owed to self-organization by Bay Area makers, who have transformed maker spaces, universities, fabrication shops and almost anyone with their own sewing machine, CNC machine or 3D printer into an ad-hoc corps of medical supply manufacturers.

Self-organized through Facebook groups and Slack teams, something like a distributed factory is emerging in the Bay Area — seeking scale, efficiency, raw materials and funding, with every maker space or fabrication lab filling the most effective niche it can.

Mylla Truong (left) and Vince Stevenson work to distribute donated PET sheets for face shields. | Photo: Maurice Ramirez

One key organizer of the effort is Danny Beesley, the co-founder of the advanced manufacturing program at Peralta Community College District, along with several fabrication labs in schools across the East Bay.

Working with a team of former students and volunteers recruited from social media, he's been rapidly piecing together infrastructure for mass production of masks and face shields from spare parts, holding daily Zoom meetings and coordinating efforts across multiple projects and dozens of teams.

He feels like he's spent nine months scaling a small manufacturing startup. In reality, he says, it's only been about 10 days.

“This is chaos. It's a substantially higher level of chaos, but we're used to that.”

Rick Rothbart, who manages the fabrication lab at Laney College originally founded by Beesley, said that many people across the Bay Area maker community turned to making personal protective equipment (PPE) when the outbreak started.

“A lot of us either lost our jobs, or our jobs have changed significantly,” he said. "So a lot of people had the same logical idea, which was, 'We can do something about this.'"

With Laney's campus shuttered by the shelter-in-place order, Rothbart and his colleagues Mark Martin and Levi Williams had just four hours of shop time to look at a mask design provided by Martin’s wife, redraw it in CAD, and make modifications.

"Every second, we were working on it," he said. "No breaks, no lunch."

His is just one of the Bay Area labs, maker spaces, and small fabricators putting their idled shops and equipment to work. Their ranks include Ace Monster Toys and m0xy in Oakland, Maker Nexus in Sunnyvale, and Neal’s CNC in Alameda.

Most of these spaces are geared for prototyping or small production runs, not production on the scale that’s currently needed.

After a few rounds of testing and prototyping, Rothbart said, they realized they couldn’t fill the orders they were getting with their 3D printers — Oakland’s Highland Hospital alone requested 10,000 face shields.

So they quickly started looking for other manufacturing methods. First, they tried die-cutting the components, working with a company called Automatic Arts in Oakland. A team of volunteers assembled the first round of 500 masks using the method, delivering them to Oakland's Highland Hospital last week.

But that still isn’t fast enough to fill the need in the Bay Area and across the country. Rothbart’s team is now putting its energy into injection molding, which he said could ultimately scale to 18,000 face shields per week.

Volunteers at the Port Workspaces in Oakland assemble face shields based on the Laney College design. | Photo: Rick Rothbart

Max Niehaus, manager of the Academy of Art University’s industrial design shop in Nob Hill, is pursuing another novel solution to scale up production of face shields.

After putting together an open-source design modified with feedback from workers at the Tenderloin's St. Francis Memorial Hospital, Niehaus and a team of shop managers are using idle time on the shop’s nine 3D printers and its water-jet cutter to produce hundreds of shields.

Since industrial design students are currently taking classes remotely, Niehaus usually receives their designs, 3D prints them, and ships them to their homes.

But since many AAU students now have 3D printers at home, the chain has been reversed: he's now having students print face shield parts at home, then send them back to the school for cleaning and assembly.

“I think to me, using idle machines and idle hands in a crisis is the bare minimum,” he said. "It should be the expectation: where we can pitch in, we absolutely are obligated to.”

AAU Industrial Design shop manager Max Niehaus inspects a prototype face shield bound for St. Francis Hospital. | Photo: Madeline Salsich

Despite these innovative approaches, the scale of any one shop remains small. Getting to the 16,000 face shields produced this last weekend required coordination not across just one shop, but across an entire network.

Rachel McConnell, co-owner of Hayward cutting and fabrication shop Neal’s CNC, said her shop started out trying to produce full face shields on its own.

But after getting connected to the larger network Beesley is helping coordinate, it's begun producing just one component — frames — as fast as it can, allowing the effort to be distributed across multiple shops.

"We're all talking to each other a lot more now,” McConnell said. “Some people that I might have considered my competitors, I'm working hand-in-hand with."

Neal's CNC is now producing 500 face shield frames per day, which are picked up and transported to other shops for assembly, packing, and fulfillment.

"Some of the people that we're working with, I have not even met," McConnell said. “I've talked to everyone I know to find people who have skills, and people are just showing up.”

Gerard Dumuk (foreground) and Rachel McConnell inspecting plastic face shield frames at Neal's CNC in Hayward. | Photo: Maurice Ramirez 

Beesley’s team coordinates its efforts on a Slack team called "All Bay Area PPE." He said the group is doing its best to organize the chaos, take care of the administrative overhead, direct incoming volunteers where they’re most needed, and raise the money to keep production humming.

“I don't want people to worry about who's paying for it," he said. "I don't want people to worry about where it's coming from."

The group came together in an ad-hoc fashion. One member, Broadway actress Ashley Chiu, originally jumped into the fray on her own to start sewing face masks. After being connected to Beesley, "essentially, she's the office manager now,” he said.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, Chiu, who grew up in San Mateo and now lives in New York, was preparing for a role in the upcoming Britney Spears jukebox musical "Once Upon A Time One More Time."

But after the virus shut down Broadway theaters, she decided to stay with her family in the Bay Area during the lockdown. A plan to sew masks at home quickly blossomed into her current role in volunteer coordination.

“I'm good at coordinating, I'm good at sending emails, I'm good at talking to people on the phone,” she said. “My mom's the one who can sew, and we only have one machine.”

Chiu’s volunteer group, "MakeMePPE," now has more than 400 members sewing and delivering masks. Many are from the theater industry, including Theatre Bay Area, the Berkeley Repertory Theater and the Stanford University costume shop. The San Francisco seamstresses' union and a collective called Bay Area Sewcialists are also on board.

From her parents' home, Chiu tracks and distributes orders for face masks, face shields, gowns, caps, booties, hand sanitizer and more.

"That looks like three Slack channels and 100 emails a day," Chiu said. "On Saturday, I gave myself a heart attack, because I sent so many emails that Gmail locked me out of my account for four hours.”

Together, the group has been able to achieve an otherwise impossible scale, transforming a massive donation of fabric and materials into ready-to-sew face masks in just three days.

On Sunday, a volunteer with a box truck picked up multiple bolts of fabric from Sacramento. Beesley found an industrial laundry to launder the fabric, and once it arrived, volunteers working out of the Alameda warehouse broke it down to laser cutter bed size.

With the laser cutter, volunteers were able to trim the fabric into individual mask size, packaging it up into sewing kits of 50 masks each. Distributed to individual sewing groups, the kits will become 12,000 masks by next week, says Michelle Diaz, an intensive care nurse working with the group.

That’s on top of another 3,000 to 4,000 masks made from a specialized material Diaz secured, which will provide better protection than the cotton masks many volunteers are sewing all around the world.

“Because we're not taking a purchase order from a hospital, our income is not dependent on selling to the hospital,” Beesley said. “We then have the ability to provide the PPE directly to the people who need it.”

Volunteers sort through 4,000 yards of donated fabric destined for mask-making kits. | Photo: Michelle Diaz

Diaz, the intensive care nurse, said she got involved because she was working 16-hour shifts in the hospital with insufficient PPE, then spending a few hours at home sewing her own “harm-reduction masks" for colleagues.

Just 10 days ago, she said, nurses at one Kaiser Permanente facility were told they could be fired for wearing their own masks at work. The California Nurses' Union got involved, and now Kaiser is providing a recommended mask pattern on its website.

"Is this a good solution? No, absolutely not. We should be buying true N95s," Diaz said. “We all are well aware that this is a hack. We should never have been unprepared. We should never have been putting our healthcare providers at this risk of danger.”

Chiu told one story about a nurse who reached out to her with an urgent request, saying that she and her fellow nurses weren’t getting any masks despite their hospital having a stockpile.

"Within 24 hours, I got 50 masks committed to her," Chiu said. "They were delivered [on Monday]."

Nurse Michelle Diaz poses with completed mask sewing kits. | Photo: Matt Trocker

Unfortunately, the current supply chain issues show no sign of letting up. As a result, the group is now looking to expand into more categories of PPE, including gowns and possibly even hospital beds.

Beesley is optimistic that things can continue to scale.

"What's standing in the way is not production capacity," he said, but money and raw materials. His team is actively working to address those shortages in order to keep Bay Area shops humming.

"Within three weeks' time, the Bay Area could become an exporter of PPE."


To get involved in the effort, visit the MakeMePPE volunteer intake form or the Open Source COVID-19 Medical Supplies - Bay Area page on Facebook. You can also donate to the effort here.

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