Part 1: A Mesh Network for 3D Printing Face Shields

“They’re making whatever we can get them to make.” —Jay Margalus

The Haul from DePaul

Jayson “Jay” Margalus is the faculty director of makerspaces at DePaul University. He is also President of SpaceLab, a non profit community makerspace in his hometown of Mokena, Illinois. He was the organizer of the Chicago Southland Mini Maker Faire.

Idea Realization Lab is a perfectly optimistic but ungainly description of a makerspace. IRL, as it is more often called, is at DePaul University in downtown Chicago and a second one is at Lincoln Park campus, and Jay Margalus keeps them running. At the end of March, DePaul University, like the city of Chicago and the State of Illinois, went into lockdown. Just before closing the doors of the IRL, Jay and several of his colleagues “liberated” — to use his word — all of the machines in the university makerspaces. He personally took out as much stuff as would fit in the back of his car. “We took 3D printers and dispersed them among all of my student employees, who are currently fabricating things at home,” Jay told me while the hum of 3D printers could be heard in the background at home in Mokena, a Chicago suburb.

Jay Margalus with Jake Juracka, a DePaul student and makerspace employee, moving 3D printers

Read more articles about Plan C: What makers are doing to combat Covid-19

Liberating 3D printers from makerspaces in institutions such as universities, libraries, museums and public schools was the first response of many individuals. Each of them had concluded that 3D printers were of no use in empty buildings. They gathered them up, along with supplies such as filament, and brought them home, thinking it was good to be prepared to use them. They wanted to have production capacity available, even before they had knew what they would do.

Not every institution thought it was a good idea to have employees walk out with machines and those who asked for permission generally didn’t get it easily, if at all.

The Haul from DePaul.

A Distributed Fabrication Network Within Chicago

Eric Landahl is a physics professor at DePaul. His background is as a government scientist, working at Argonne National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore Labs. He “retired to academia” 12 years ago.

Eric also helped liberate 3D printers from DePaul. His Chicago home would become the first node in a network that Jay and Eric began to put together. They were concerned about the risk of exposure of people working in any kind of facility. Eric said: “The idea is to keep extremely isolated groups sharing information, but not exchanging people or materials for safety.”

No one thought that it would be a good idea to assemble all the machines in one location. It was better to have them widely distributed. Jay called the solution “a mesh network” consisting of many independent but interconnected nodes. A mesh network relies on cooperation instead of hierarchy to get things done. Each node is a group of people, each with a 3D printer at home. Each one can run independent of the others. The first node that Eric runs has about 12 people participating. Four of them host mini-printer farms in separate apartments in downtown Chicago.

The more nodes, the more resilient the network. “In a mesh network, when a node becomes inundated with traffic, the node distributes that traffic elsewhere,” explained Jay. “If you can think of the disease as traffic, and the traffic hits one node and one node goes down, we can load balance and take care of the rest of the network, which could extend to the State of Illinois.” He said that if he contracted the virus, his 3D printers would be idle but the work would go to others in the network.

There are now 20 nodes of varying sizes. “The one I’m a part of in the south suburbs started with only a handful of us,” said Jay “and now additionally includes people from seven local libraries.” By April 2, Eric’s node had delivered its 500th PPE. He had also prepared a shipment to go to the hospital where his 75-year-old mother works.

The Swedish Design

“When you form any community movement,” said Jay, “you need one simple thing for people to focus on. You can’t say we’re going to make 10 things.” Deciding what to do came from several sources. Some of them noticed the open-source design for the Prusa 3D printed face shield from Josef Prusa in Czech Republic. A modified version of the Prusa design became known locally as “the Swedish design.” Jay explained that a Facebook group for Swedish Covenant Hospital had attracted attention as the first hospital that said: ‘We don’t care what you get us. We need PPE.” They were willing to cut the red tape out and activate a community response.

Even before Jay’s group had come together, the Swedish Covenant Hospital group was getting traction and they had decided on a face shield design. So Jay and Eric decided to focus on the Swedish design first, in part, because a hospital had approved it. “We picked it as the lowest barrier-to-entry thing we could think of,” he said. At first they saw themselves as part of the Swedish Covenant Facebook group, and produced and delivered some face shields to that hospital.

Over time, the group has relied on several face shield designs, all variations of the Prusa model: the Swedish design and an NIH-approved version of the Prusa Model. The Chicago shield, developed by Dan Meyer, is a compact version that fits the bed of smaller 3d printers and can be printed as a stack, one part on top of another. It is baked to make the plastic flexible and then stretched in a mold to a larger size. Jeff Solin, a high school computer science teacher, designed the Solin Flat Pack Face Shield that could be produced from a single sheet of plastic on a laser cutter.

As it has turned out, a distributed network doesn’t necessarily have to focus on doing one thing. What matters is getting people started and giving people something specific to do helps achieve that. Each node will also respond based on available tools and materials to either a community-wide need or the needs of a specific neighborhood.

The thicker version of the Prusa design.

Organizers of the Illinois PPE Network

“A lot of the Chicago makerspace people know each other,” said Jay, and soon they were talking to each other about what to do together. “It’s librarians, makerspace people, educators,” said Jay. “These are the people who are stepping up to help first responders and doctors and others. Every one of them are helpers, and they’re leaders in their own right.” Here is a list of the people who agreed to help organize the network. Note that they participated on their own, not as representatives of their institutions.

  • Sasha Neri – Harold Washington Public Library’s Maker Lab
  • Jeff Solin – Chicago Public Schools and Lane Tech High School
  • Andrew Morrison – Joliet Junior College
  • Ray Doeksen – Pumping Station: One and Nation of Makers
  • Dan Meyer – Museum of Science and Industry’s Fab Lab
  • Jackie Moore – South Side Maker Faire
  • Eric Landahl – Physics professor, DePaul
  • Terry Steinbach – Associate Dean, DePaul
  • Pam Daniels – Northwestern

The Illinois PPE Network website was launched to handle requests for PPE from health care facilities and help connect those who could join the network as fabricators. They also began to raise funds to buy supplies needed for production.

Screenshot of IllinoisPPE website.

There were other tools provided to replicate nodes and processes. Eric wrote documentation for setting up and managing a node. Pam Daniels is a clinical associate professor at Northwestern created a template for writing letters to an institution’s overly cautious leadership. In version one of the letter, the tone is characterized as “I’m telling you, not asking you” and the second version is “I’m asking, but you’re a morally reprehensible asshole and possibly in violation of state laws if you say no.” Both letters begin:

During this time of crisis in Illinois, we have been asked by the Department of Public Health to activate any and all available makerspaces in service of producing personal protective equipment (PPE) which can be distributed to community-based providers, including but not limited to homeless shelters, behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment providers and Federally Qualified Health Centers.

Map of Network

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1ME9P1VfSKX1n3Uqek8eQrhegiBdICvKk&usp=sharing

Sanitized, Packaged and Delivered

In Eric’s downtown Chicago node, each person prints one part of the face shield and delivers the parts to Eric where they are assembled in his spare bathroom. “We do the final assembly and some sanitization and then coordinate shipping,” said Eric.

“We give doctors a package for a face shield that’s ready to assemble,” said Eric. The health care professionals put the mask on the harness themselves. He said assembly takes his team about 15 seconds but it probably takes a minute for a health care professional wearing gloves.

“We usually ship one example that’s put together,” said Eric. “That’s because, believe it or not, we have found through iterative design, working with the medical professionals, in the heat of the moment, that they’ll screw up.” He said even simple mistakes happen, like not pulling the protective film off of a face shield.

Michael Koenig, a DePaul student, assembling face shields.

The group has found rather unique ways to get the PPE into hospitals. In downtown Chicago, the packages are delivered by out-of-work bike messengers. “We’re not getting in a car,” said Eric. ”It’s basically a single person handling it from the source to delivery point. Instead of delivering face shields directly to hospitals, they drop them off at the homes of ER doctors who have requested them. “Delivering to their homes is actually a really fantastic way of getting things into the hospitals,” said Eric. “An ER doc will carry it in and it gets used and they give us feedback.”

Jay said that the way they built the network early on was reaching out to ER doctors. “The ER doctors are the ones who say, ‘yes, we will take this face shield and we’ll tell all of the other doctors we know about it.’” He said an ER doctor posted an image of him wearing the face shield on Twitter and got a lot of reactions. “I’m sure administrators at his hospital didn’t want to see that,” said Jay. “but what are they going to do? Fire him in the middle of a pandemic?

Dr. Stephen Aks and a colleague at Stroger Hospital of Cook County. (Source: Dr. Aks)

The Librarians

Sasha Neri is a librarian who was part of the team that began to research makerspaces and set up one inside the Harold Washington Public Library downtown. The Maker Lab opened in July of 2013 as a six-month experiment but the positive response from the community has kept it running continuously as a free, public makerspace offering workshops that are “both high-tech and hands-on.”

With Harold Washington Public Library and its Maker Lab closed, Sasha Neri brought two FlashForge units home with her. Other library staff brought home Makerbot Replicator 2s and Dremel 3D printers.

“Illinois PPE consists of people I’ve worked with on a lot of these things,” said Sasha. “They’re always ready to help in normal times, so it’s not surprising to see what can be done together.” Jay Margalus reached out to talk about how the maker community’s response was meeting a critical need and it was evolving quickly. “With Illinois PPE, we wanted to support existing efforts and expand outreach to makers and health care facilities alike.”

“The library has been supportive,” said Sasha. “It asked for volunteers and now there are nearly 20 people sewing and 3D printing, connected to the Illinois PPE network for pick ups, deliveries, and supplies.” She collaborated with Dan Meyer on the Chicago Shield that could be printed on the bed of her two FlashForge Finder 3D printers.

Sasha Neri, librarian at Harold Washington Public Library in Chicago, holding a stack of Chicago shields that she printed at home. (Source: Sasha Neri)

“I just finished expanding about 30 prints that I hope to have picked up today or tomorrow by our South Side node, she said. “They deliver the visors and transparencies to a hospital or community facility in need.” While hospitals are in critical need, she said that other organizations that have staff providing in-person services need protective gear as well.

So far, 22 suburban libraries have connected to Illinois PPE, each one having about two 3D printers and producing at a rate of 20 to 80 shields a week. For instance, the Hinsdale Public Library is producing 30-50 shields a week on its Dremel 3D45 printer. The school libraries of District 181 of Clarendon Hills were producing approximately 145 face shields a week on an Ultimaker 2+ and three Dremel 3D45s.

Libraries just quietly cooperate, a model for widely distributed public service. Librarians step forward and say ‘yes” when asked to help. .

A Rapid Civic Response

I asked Eric and Jay how it came together so quickly. “It’s one of the reasons I live in Chicago, despite the weather,” said Eric. “Chicago has got a really strong set of social networks. And I consider myself to sort of have affiliations or identities as an individual in three separate areas. One of them is students and the maker movement coming together. The second is the rarefied world of academic physics and science. And a third actually being personal, one made up of local athletes and bike racers and bike couriers. Those strong networks, all come together.” This is what enables a rapid civic response.

“If you already have strong social networks in place such as ones formed by makerspaces or active athletic clubs,” said Eric, “you are able to pull these things together quickly.” He added that “an aspect of society that is often overlooked is the importance of community. The spaces built the communities that allows them to be employed at times like this.”

When the fabricators ran out of the elastic used as straps for the face shield, the bike couriers offered a solution. “We turned to upcycling bicycle tubes into elastic bands,” said Eric. “The bike tubes were donated primarily by bike couriers and their friends who then actually deliver the products for us.”

“There is a sharing of solutions, but with adaptation,” said Eric. “Delivery by bike messenger works very well right here in central Chicago and likewise in New York city or San Francisco. Where Jay lives in the suburbs, it’s different. “We dropped off 200 shields today to a city hall in Mokena,” said Jay. “They transfer them to the police department and they distribute them to hospitals.”

“We give priority to end users,” said Eric. “That is healthcare workers and first responders who actually will provide feedback.”

Some of them get sampler packs, which have three different designs for testing. “We ask them which one they like best,” said Eric. This helps them evaluate different designs. “They also get the standard package, which might be anywhere from 20 to 50, ready-to-assemble face shields.”

I asked Eric about the kind of feedback they get. “You got to have a thick skin,” he said. “Because these doctors don’t mince words. They’ll tell you if it sucks.” Mostly, though health care workers were thankful.

“Listening and relationships matter,” said Sasha Neri, the librarian. “Our communities have a lot to say if we listen, and it shouldn’t take a pandemic to make that obvious. And there are roles for everyone, each of us bring a skill to the community effort. If you believe in the effort, you can find a way to support it, even from home.”

“If you ask why is this problem happening in the first place?” asked Jay. “It’s because there are a lot of layers of bureaucracy that are preventing people from doing things.”

Jay read off a paragraph from an article he had read:

The American institutions charged with protecting public health are embedded in a bureaucratic culture that values turf-centered gatekeeping and control over effectiveness and outcome. Some might protest that the FDA’s manner of regulating is needed for public safety, but the small Asian nations have refuted this argument showing that it is competence, not bureaucratic control, that protects the public.

Effective Pandemic Response is Not About Preparation” by Stephen Pimental.

There is a lot of competence in the maker community, and the maker movement has quietly helped to develop and organize that competence. Its existing network of makers and makerspaces is generating a rapid civic response that is proving to be an effective way to get things done. Makers are helping to protect the public of Chicago and elsewhere.

“I got a call today for 1,000 PPE in an assisted living facility in Michigan.” Jay told me.


Other parts in this series:

  1. Introduction
  2. A Mesh Network for Making Face Shields
  3. The Solin Flatpack Face Shield
  4. Who’s Not in the Network
  5. Binge-making with Dan Meyer