In such a crazy time, a place that calls itself an Asylum seems normal, and more productive and purposeful than most places in responding to shortages of medical supplies due to Covid-19. Here are people who think of themselves as creatives and makers, but they are usually seen as a bit crazy. In the madness of a pandemic, they seem calm and focused, as though this work is what they normally do. But it’s not. Imagine that the powerful people with careers in government and industry stopped working, and these Plan C crazies showed up, took on the abandoned roles of leadership and responsibility, and now they run the factory that is saving lives. They are sourcing materials even when the supply chain is broken. They are making products that solve real human problems. They are showing up every day over the past couple months and demonstrating how we can save ourselves from apathy and arrogance. What they are doing looks ordinary, but it is truly extraordinary.

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

Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville, Massachusetts is a model makerspace, which means it is both distinctive as a makerspace and a template for many others to follow. About 10 years ago, the Asylum was founded by Gui Cavalcanti, who later moved to the Bay Area to build robots and in March of this year founded the Open Source Medical Supplies (OSMS) group. One singular feature of the Asylum was that it offered studio space for rent for artisans and it became like a village made up of all kinds of people with different skills and practices.  As a community, they were recognized for revitalizing the neighborhood where it was located, a building that was formerly a factory for the Ames Envelope Company.

So, it’s no surprise that Artisan’s Asylum was buzzing with energy, ideas and action around providing PPE in response to Covid-19. This asylum became a factory, with its members figuring out what to make, what tools to use and what tools to make, and what materials were available to make face shields, face masks and gowns. As much as they relied on the talents and skillsets of members, they also expanded beyond their membership to use volunteers in a number of roles. Remarkably, they are running three 8-hour shifts a day to produce hospital gowns.

Here are some of the recent numbers:

  • Over 11,500 units produced including 8,000 gowns and 3,500 shields
  • 6,000 gowns in production; 2,000 more shields in production
  • 149 volunteers have joined us, 75 percent of whom are nonmembers
  • 12 local customers, from child care service providers to hospitals
  • $51,909 in total direct expenses, 70 percent of costs being the raw materials for making PPE
  • $21,000 in online gifts and $38,512 in other direct contributions and sponsorships

In this Zoom conversation, I talk with:

  • Lars Torres, Executive Director of Artisan’s Asylum
  • Sarah Miller, industrial designer who has organized the design and production of gowns
  • Tim Butterworth, maker who developed a set of 3D tools for pleating materials for face masks.

You’ll also meet Pastry Queen (PQ), a seamstress who became the master of the ultrasonic bonder, a tool used in making gowns.

“The most inspiring thing is just coming in day after day and seeing dozens and dozens of people for the last couple of months who have had no motivation other than wanting to help their community,” says Tim Butterworth, a maker who designed a pleating tool to help fold surgical masks. “We are under tight deadlines with a restricted budget,” says Sarah Miller, who reverse-engineered the gowns and figured out how to make them. “Can you make something we have never made before and show people how to make it? We basically need a miracle,” she said of the design and production process. It is a kind of miracle, which is also transforming a creative space into a safe production facility using volunteers to fabricate PPE.

Becoming a factory almost overnight would present challenges for any organization, but especially the culture of the Asylum where its members go to escape the drudgery of work and discover doing something that they enjoy. Executive Director Lars Torres needed to create order in the Asylum: “Trying to tune what we’re doing internally while still being true to our culture, and at the same time fulfilling those orders with people doing lifesaving work who really need them, this has been the biggest stress of our culture, of our systems, of our self identity.” He knows that it took many years and many people supporting this place to make it possible for them to take on this challenge.

Such a place as Artisan’s Asylum combines practical skills with experimentation and innovative thinking. It’s hard work and people seem so energized by it that you don’t know they are tired. They are keeping this local factory running. They have the tools of production and can use them efficiently and creatively. “A makerspace shouldn’t be thought of as an amenity,” said Lars, saying that some people think it’s a “nice to have” in a community. “Makerspaces are essential,” he said, because “they enable community resiliency.” He added that “thousands of people have made very small investments over 10 years to enable this kind of community resiliency.”

Being able to produce what is needed now, even though months ago nobody realized there would be a need, is what the Asylum is doing with people just crazy enough to believe they can do it. This is a demanding role for a makerspace to play, helping to save us now and again as we will certainly need saving in the future. “I think that his crisis totally highlights that we matter,” said Tim, “that makers and makerspaces matter.”

Video Conversation with Lars, Sarah and Tim

Edited Transcript

The Asylum Saves Us

Dale: I’m just fascinated by all that’s going on and moved by it really. This is for those of us who imagine things like the maker movement being impactful in the world. This is just such a clear demonstration of what good people can do given tools and expertise and working together. The latter is probably the real secret here that I want to talk about because we could all geek out about designs and that kind of stuff but it’s really mobilizing other people.

Lars, I’m always interested in how did it get started. How did the response begin? Who was figuring this out and how did they begin to get organized? So Lars, could I ask you to introduce yourself?

Lars: I’m Lars Torres. I serve as Executive Director at the Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville, Massachusetts. We’re a 42,000 square foot member-powered fabrication Wonderland, as I like to call it, a makerspace to most people, but it’s really a collection of studios, dreams, tools and products that have been cultivated, brought together over the last 10 years. We were founded by Gui Cavalcanti, back in 2010 who was an engineer and a big thinker.

Lars Torres, Executive Director of Artisan’s Asylum

One of the things that is kind of extraordinary is that Gui began talking about this pandemic and about the opportunity for makers to respond probably in late February, early March. Sarah can tell you a little bit more, but he stood up a group that grew very rapidly called Open Source Medical Supplies. I think it was out of that, that our community really began to look at the opportunity. What we did at the Asylum is the organization, independent of what the members do. Because when you have that hive mind, there are a lot of opportunities to put it to use.

So as an organization, our opportunities to say, okay, well where should we focus? And what we began to do is talk with both the doctors, health care providers and others, and say what looks like it’s going to be the acute need here. And we very quickly identified gowns. hospital gowns, we identified facial masks, and of course, that’s what was in the press as well. And then face shields as items that local hospitals and healthcare providers are willing to pay for, which was important to us because we don’t have tons of cash coming out of our ears. So we had to figure out a model to be engaged that we could afford to be engaged in.

And selling this material at cost was a pretty important model.

Dale: Can I ask you before we go into the solution space? What did you learn about why there were shortages of these three things in the hospitals?

Lars: I think what we learned at the essence of that story is a breakdown in supply, domestically. A lot of this was being produced overseas and there was a huge global demand, not only for the product, but for the raw materials that made the product.

And nobody here really saw that coming. and had an adequate response to it. I think the federal government tried to deploy stockpiles from the military and elsewhere, but it was insufficient. And the logistic problem of standing that up overnight was overwhelming.

Dale: Which came first? The gowns or the face shields?

Lars: I’ll hand this over to the team and they can talk about their, their own individual journeys. For sure, what we don’t have represented here are face shields and because of the work at the University of Wisconsin and one of our members, Josh Beckman, we were able to stand up that team very quickly and the first order for a thousand shields came through a member who then handed the stewardship of that product line, if you will, over to the organization long term. But it came probably in late March. Maybe we fulfilled that April 1st even

Dale: That was a local hospital?

Lars: Cambridge Health Alliance

Yeah, we produced it, but really directly from the University of Wisconsin’s work. So helpful there is we could spin up the production based on what they had done on the early prototyping iteration. Tim, Sarah, others had to do a much, much deeper dive into the design and the manufacturing process itself, which is why those just took a little while longer to get stood up.

Sarah: I think that that first week of finding out the coronavirus was hitting the world, in a very fast pace, kept all of us glued to our screens. And as we kind of uncovered and was watching it unfold around the world, the idea that a lot of these face shields, masks and protective gear, actually came from like the Wuhan area.

And so as those factories shut down, there was a direct need, and then, as more and more countries were in need of those exact safety precautions and safety gowns that were normally distributed worldwide, each country needed them. We were like: Oh my God, it’s going to be awhile before this is replenished.

As we watched this, there’s a group called Open Source COVID-19 Medical Supplies grow from about 500 of us to within one week. It was like 6,000, 10,000, 15,000, 20,000. You could see people all over the US starting to just jump in.

Tim, I remember you were making immediately, starting to 3D print immediately because it became apparent that face masks were necessary. And the first goto move was to 3D print. Within a week, we kind of knew that maybe that wasn’t the fastest way. But over the next two weeks watching, people at Artisan’s Asylum jump in with 3D printers, laser cutters and start to, nationally watch through this group, different ideas be uncovered, tested and then new iterations coming out and then people settling on them and saying, okay, it’s been a week. We’ve tried out 27 different designs. This one seems to be able to be made the fastest. What are the hospitals saying? What is it like to go through the procurement department?

What processes legally are we following, where do we fall? Who’s going through the front door? Who’s going through the back door? It meant that there was teams here saying, Hey, do you want to build 3D printers? Do you want to do it with laser cutters?

And then somebody said gowns. So after having that first two weeks of experience, we were able to jump in very quickly because we had seen the whole process unfold.

Dale: To be clear, you’re a member at Artisan’s Asylum.

Sarah: Yes.

Dale: And prior to the pandemic, what kind of work were you doing there?

Sarah: So I’m an industrial designer, so I make one-offs and prototypes. It’s my job to jump in and take this one item and then make many more of them.

Hey, can you make this thing that we don’t really have the means to make right now? Can you reverse engineer it? Can you source materials? Can you set up a line of people that want to make a certain amount of them? And we are under tight deadlines with restricted budget. We basically need a miracle. That’s kind of working for startups and making prototypes for startups has made this pretty easy.

Dale: Talk about reverse engineering a gown.

Sarah Miller

Sarah: I had six gowns given to me from the area, and made sure that they came in plastic bags from different hospitals. And then we went through them. So there are three main suppliers of gowns nationally. And we went and found different versions of each one of those, and then found the ones that we were able to make.

For instance, there are small things about the neck or the wrist. I think what was difficult was going through the AAMI requirements and making sure that we were uncovering why these designs existed, and sticking to the standards and making sure that we were producing something that was going to be nearly equivalent to what was available out there.

But we couldn’t source elastic for instance. So what was really common was an elastic wrist and getting non-latex elastic was very difficult. So we would modify the design to fit with what was available to us. But that really kind of really was limited to just the wrist. Other than that, it was designing a one-piece design instead of separate sleeves.

So we chose the designs that had the least amount of manufacturing problems and the least amount of work.

Hospital gown

Dale: How about the basic material? Was that hard to source?

Sarah: All the gowns that we found were a 100% polypropylene spun-bound. And, it was a matter of giving them to the hospitals, giving the materials to the hospitals and saying, which of these do you approve of? And once we got approvals back on the materials that we had offered, we went forward with those and we were able to find them out.

Hey look, we just got six, eight.

Dale: Is that what that is? Yeah. Those are looming over your head

Sarah: That’s a huge roll right there. And then there’s six more behind that come from from Canada. This material is used in a wide variety of industries. It is not that different from exactly what’s available in the medical industry. Currently, a 100% polypropylene is a very, relatively common, material that you can find out there. We just had to find it.

Dale: What tools in Artisan’s Asylum did you need to make gowns out of this material?

Sarah: Interestingly, we tried laser cutting different patterns. We tried our plotter; we tried on the CNC machine. None of those things were really fast enough. So we ended up getting a fabric saw, which is not unlike a jigsaw, but it’s just a tabletop jigsaw. and you can cut many, many, many, many layers at a time, like a hundred to 300 layers of one pattern at a time.

Dale: Well, let me go over to Tim. How did you get involved?

Tim: So Sarah mentioned, I started off printing masks, like such a nice idea and pretty easy as prints. And we realized very quickly that it just wasn’t scalable.

So we started thinking about what these tools could be used for. and I started off with different masks, and we realized that there’s actually a big demand for pleated surgical -style masks. There are a couple of benefits to them.

One is that they can actually just be worn over an N95 and N99. respirator as a barrier, which prolongs the life, to wearing them out in the public where filtration is not as important as it is in a clinical setting. but sort of the real elegance to the design is that if you can build a pleated mask, you can feed that with whatever filter media you can source. And if you can only get polypropylene with not great filter characteristics, but okay, you can make an okay mask. You’re able to source 3-ply SMS polypropylene that’s used in traditional masks. Then you can make one with very good filtration characteristics.

So the idea was coming up with a tool that could accommodate a variety of materials, while forming the same physical shape.

So for the last couple of months, I’ve had six printers running just nonstop, iterating through designs.

Tim Butterworth

So down in the, the bottom corner, are the most recent parts. and these are actually, they’ve been sold to a textile factory in New Jersey who’s interested in making masks. and actually two minutes ago, I got a text from a different factory owner out in Western Mass. who wants to purchase a feeder as well?

What I discovered is that there are quite a few textile factories that have the tooling to handle material in feed, to cut the material, to sew it or bond it. They have everything they need in the assembly line except for the pleating tool itself. So, whereas with the shields and the gowns, the production is the PPE itself. In my projects. the production is the tool and it’s sort of a force multiplier if I can provide pleating tools to factories.

I’ve been able to sell to factories that don’t have the means to, or experience to print their own. But anybody who would like to, I’ve spoken with folks in Mexico, South Africa and Chilé who can download the files on their own and make their own and adapt them to different material thicknesses or width based on whatever’s available locally.

So I think that it’s so key to what we’re designing here. You asked earlier like, how did we get to this point with the supply? We became, I think, complacent. I think the medical industry just got so used to okay, well I can place an order today and in a week we’ll be stocked up.

There’s really no need to have a deep, deep reserve. And up until now, they’ve been getting those orders. So there’s really no reason for them to think this is something they need to protect against. But it’s so incredibly clear, I think, to all Americans now that we have to own the means of production.

So having a democratized production method like this, I think is really crucial. So I’d like to think that down the road every hospital might have one of these machines in their basement with a stock of polypropylene ready to make their own. Once this is all together, the pleating tool itself can do up to about 20,000 masks a day.

Dale: Really? That’s incredible.

Tim: Just for the pleating tool, to be clear, adding the ear loops is still a pretty manual process for us. We’re working on automating that as well, but at the moment, that’s the rate limiter,

Dale: Tell me, how did you think about it? Are there a world of pleating tools out there that you found one and said, I’ll reverse engineer it, or did you kind of come up with this?

Tim: So YouTube was my friend. I watched a lot of videos. Luckily, Chinese and Indian mask-making factories have videos where they just kind of walk around the machine and you can get a rough sense of what they’re doing. So the design behind me, with the stainless steel fins is closest to what’s used in industry. I just kind of customized it with my own measurements. Do you mind if I screen share for a minute?

Dale: It occurs to me that we’re out China’ing China. This is what they did to us and now we are doing it back to them. It’s how they built up their production capacities over the years.

Tim: This whole thing has been designed to be modular. One module needs to form the pleat. I don’t want to be engineered into a corner if that first style of pleating tool doesn’t work. So I’ve actually designed six different styles. and this is one that I’m going to show you that really just highlights how powerful 3D printing can be.

3D drawing of pleated surgical mask machine

So this takes the material in after the middle pleat has been formed and as it goes through the block, you can see this profile lips up and over itself to form all three pleats and then presses them down as the material exits.

Dale: Are you printing that like in slices then too?

Tim: I’ll show you. I will turn one of the bodies off.

Dale: Okay.

Tim: Do the other one. So inside, Oh, what’s a pretty simple idea? You actually have really complex geometry.

Dale: Yeah.

Tim: So if we align with the front, you can see this helix shape. I don’t know if that, that helps me

Dale: It does. I couldn’t visualize what was happening inside, so that’s great.

Tim: I’ve done a handful of other styles, like I was saying, so this is the current model for this stainless steel finger pleater. And if you’d like, I can go through the rest if you’d like to see some of the other styles.

Dale: What program are you in here?

Tim: Fusion 360, which is another thing. This has been a free tool to me as a hobbyist for years. So I’ve been able to go around and occasionally make models so that when a crisis like this comes up, I’m actually proficient in the software package and I wouldn’t have been, if not for Autodesk’s focus on making it an available tool for hobbyists.

Dale: Yeah, that was great. And it’s something, I mean I want to come back to, if you want to continue here, but kind of what you knew going into this and what you’ve had to lear . Have you ever made anything equivalent to a machine like this?

Tim: Like this? No. I’ve done quite a bit of 3D printing robotics work. but as a conversion process, taking a reel of a material and folding or cutting or sealing it somehow. I’ve never done anything like that.

Dale: it’s fascinating. Yeah. So what are we looking at here? Janky Pleater. I like the name.

Tim: This was a guy named, one of my teammates found a video on YouTube of an Indian machine. He says: “I found this thing that looks a little janky, but maybe this is what you should try.” So the name stuck. The material comes in through these rollers and each one of these steps separates the individual pleats then walk through these fingers.

So this was my first revision for these, for printed fingers like this. And it worked fine. But it’s, there’s not really much of a lead-in angle. So the material was bunching, printing these dovetail features. They didn’t slide very well. I’ll switch to our current model.

Dale: So like what’s the iteration time on this? I mean, you’re taking something from YouTube, turning it into a design, trying to print it out and test it, right?

Tim: So it’s kind of gives you a little better view of going from first I thought I went three print blocks and then laser cut these fins.

Then I thought I had to 3D print the whole thing. And then, this was a later version with, with this median angle. So if I see a YouTube video for these rollers, for instance, it’s pretty simple geometry. So that sketch might’ve taken an hour at most, and then set it on the printer, let it run overnight.

And I come back in and I have a part ready to drive. So making the first version, definitely not labor intensive. Seeing where that fails and what needs to be changed to make it work a little bit more reliably — that takes some time. So for instance, in this design, I was like, well there’s not a lot of load on these rollers, there’s very little force involved. I don’t think I even need bearings. So I just had these spinning around on 3D printed pegs. That didn’t work so well. I modeled the next version to press fit a bearing on either side, which helped, but then the middle is not being pushed down as much, so I modeled them to be split in half and have a third bearing sitting in the middle so that you can bear down, evenly across the roller.

So it’s that iteration process that does take more time. but each individual step. That internal pleater took the most time. It.took a couple of days to really figure out how to get the heels where I want them. But a lot of these parts are simpler than that, so getting the first version hasn’t been really labor intensive. And we’re printed parts. This is the state of the art, so instead of dovetails, like I said, I moved to eight millimeter rods, so it’s easier to slide the fingers on and off. What’s nice about this design is I can get somebody up and running quickly with these printed parts.

And then if they decide that they want stainless steel fingers, that’s great because this actually slides on to the exact same mouth. It has the same whole space. So you can literally slide off the printed part and slide on the stainless parts. And have a better pleating tool. Pretty quickly.

Lars: Tim, quick question. When did you make the decision to sort of pivot from thinking that we might be able to get the right mask fit for the product here to actually making masks? Because at some point that was a pretty clear pivot that you had to make.

Tim: Yeah, it was, When I started getting requests from other factories or people who are interested in putting in this tool to use, I realized that, that my time in the global PPE demand shortage would be better spent trying to support other people who were developing machines. That said, we still are working on a complete assembly line. I actually just had six new ultrasonic bonders delivered this morning, so I’m going to work with those. I would like to have a complete assembly line producing masks here in house.

But I would never build a second line, if that makes sense. I think it’s worth building one to make sure it works the way I expect

Dale: Then have it replicated elsewhere. Right.

Tim: Exactly.

Dale: That’s terrific. Talk about the bonders I think he showed those in on another previous program.

Tim: So we were lucky enough to get on loan through Neil Gershenfeld an ultrasonic bonder — if we could get it up and running.  It has a few different attachments that let you either bond or cut material and it worked very much like a sewing machine. But it’s better suited to this non-woven polypropylene.  In the state we got it in, it had been wired incorrectly. It’d been wired for 120 and it needed 220. So luckily,  Doug Ruuska, who is one of our members, was able to quickly figure that out and get it up and running.

Then a few guys spent a couple of nights testing a bunch of different materials. So we’d have sort of a guideline for what settings, what pressures, what voltages, make sense to get a really high quality bond. It was just a lot of experimentation. Everything we’ve done has just been like a scrappy effort.

Little about this has been, Oh, how convenient. That’s the industry I’ve worked in for 30 years. This is how you do it. It’s like none of that.

Dale: In some ways you’re taking, people with certain skill sets, but they’re learning new things and they’re doing things they’ve never done before. I guess, Lars, how does that make you think about maybe the future of what maker spaces really are?

Lars: One of the biggest missing gaps that we’ve had to normalize around with lots of pain and adaptation and patience and grace is the business side, right?

But, when we talk about makers and we talk about a place like the Asylum, the reason you come is because you sort of want to get away from the day job environment, all of those pesky Gantt charts and all of those accountability mechanisms and the focus on your bottom line.

So what do I do? I tell everybody who signs up to be a part of this team that we need project management, that we have to have reliability, predictability, and validity, right? That we have to really start treating what we’re doing in a way that we’ve never really thought about ourselves before because we are a little bit of a pirate ship, and suddenly we’re trying to become — I don’t know — a on time

Dale: cruise line.

Lars: So it’s been, it’s been challenging. No question about it, but the team that has stuck together I think is going to go far. There’s a lot of potential here and we haven’t been able to say yes to every idea. Some of the people who have been told no to, that’s not going to work.

We’re not going to do Prusa masks, for example. Some of those folks have joined other teams, and that’s been this real sort of quickening process. Very organic, very messy. But it’s been quickening. And we’ve lost some folks along the way. I hope they’ll come back later for future projects and opportunities.

We happen to have a board member – Nicholas Warren who is doing a great job fulfilling the orders on the hospital side. And so once you build that relationship with a hospital, once you say, yeah, put us on your schedule, we really want to be able to fulfill their orders and not let them down.

Trying to tune what we’re doing internally while still being true to our culture, while at the same time fulfilling those orders with people doing lifesaving work who really need them, this has been the biggest stress of our culture, of our systems, of our self identity, all that kind of good stuff.

What do you guys think?

Tim: Yeah. I think our Lars is totally right about that. This place is an escape. and I will say that Lars was my boss for the last year and a half. So I have a slightly different experience with Artisan’s Asylum in terms of Gantt charts. But I am definitely happy to be here as a maker.

I think that what is, what we’re going to come out of this all with is a renewed appreciation for local fabrication skills. I’m hoping that we’re going to have a willingness in hospitals and other organizations to consider solutions from outside the conventional sources so they’re being forced to relax standards right now.

But I’m hoping that that might encourage them to see that there’s a world of innovation that can provide better products in one way or another if they’re not so, fixed to just certain standards or proper ways of doing things. And this isn’t to say that the goal is that they should use lower-quality equipment.

It’s to say that thinking a ventilator can only be purchased from one single company that has patents locked up for decades, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. But the most inspiring thing of all of this is just coming in day after day and seeing dozens and dozens of people for the last couple of months who have had no motivation other than wanting to help their community.

There’s no profit-seeking here. Nobody’s trying to get publicity. It’s just people who want to help.

Lars: Behind you is one of the other heroes of this movement, Pastry Queen. Can you introduce her — she’s using the ultrasonic bonder. This is our best new friend behind me.

PQ at Ultrasonic Bonder

Sarah: So this is the ultrasonic ponder that we’ve been using to make all the gown clips. We’ve currently made 3000. We’re going to be almost at 4,000 by tomorrow. so just some of the process here.

PQ is the one in the red shirt right there. Even we start to see the rollout process. As soon as she’s done talking, we’re going to bring her back over here. But she is certainly the, the, the co-captain here. Dale, you’re asking earlier about tools that we ended up using. This is the saw. This is the fabric saw that we ended up using.

Fabric Saw

And that ended up kind of being our best tool of all of the larger items that we had tried to automate with, whether it was a CNC machine. This is an example of something that we just kind of made to hold each 150 pound roll of fabric. and there’s been some nice little iteration, to get the patterns to work out.

So nice little tooling that was done in order to make parts of this pattern easier to cut out. It’s a little bit hard to see because this pattern is clear.

I was gonna try to introduce PQ. She’s talking to some folks. This is PQ.

Everything that we’re up to over here at Artisan has been the one that’s bonded all 3,000, nearly 4,000. We’re at 400 a day here. So, she’s been the only one that’s been taking on the ultrasonic bonder

Dale: She learned it there, right? For this job, right?

Sarah: She’s a seamstress. So this is the action, so I can let this run. Tim, are you going to say something?

Sarah and PQ

Tim: The metal tools you’re showing that Mark Mason built for holding the material was welded. One of the really powerful things here — Is your skill on the lathe or mill? Is your skill with a welding machine? Are you a woodworker? We have all of these people who have contributed in meaningful ways to these projects, even if the result isn’t something they they touched directly. So I think that’s one of the other benefits here is. Truly anybody can help out in this effort.

Lars: One of the ways that I like to think about this, Dale, is that a Makerspace can often be seen as a community amenity, right?

It’s like that nice place where the hackers or whomever go out right now, but what we’ve seen right now in a big story that I think Make Magazine can really promote is that in fact, makerspaces are essential. And the only reason we’re here doing this work that you see PQ and Sarah and Tim and others doing is because thousands of people have made very small investments over 10 years to enable this kind of community resiliency. And I think that’s a headline out of this experience.

Tim: There’s been a lot of opinion pieces on like why are essential workers getting minimum wage? Like what the word essential means based on how our society actually values labor. I think that when we see lots of businesses closing across the country, it’s interesting to look at businesses that are doing better than ever in this space. And kind of asking why. I wouldn’t say that financially we’re doing better than ever right now, but we have a clearer need and a clearer role in our community than ever. And I think that his crisis totally highlights that we matter, that makers and makerspaces matter.

We are a nonprofit, so it’s easy to just say charity case, and we get some support. Not as much as we’d like, but when things start to go badly, and we’re here day in and day out, the way that we have been. I think that’s a really powerful recognition. And to Lars’s point, we were here for 10 years before this. We didn’t spring up out of nowhere.

Dale: Even though in many cases maker spaces were closed, the networks that they had built and the skills they had developed were able to be combined. And now there’s the production side.

This is kind of a responsive public R&D facility, right? I’m particularly interested in things that don’t have a business model because I think a lot of the problems in the world don’t get solved because they don’t have business models.

Lars: Your community to explore the question of how do you take an effort like this that is so much powered by goodwill and volunteerism. I mean, if you had to ask Sarah right now about how many human hours have been volunteered to make the 3,500 gowns that are out there, it’s gotta be in the hundreds and hundreds, right? How many volunteer hours?

Sarah: So we do 40 days of 40 times three weeks. So 800 volunteer hours so far.

Production of gowns

Lars: And that’s the question there is how do we make this sustainable? The business model,

Dale: I don’t know, it’s a really good question.

You mentioned academia, and I think not only do we see a lot of makerspaces in academia, and certainly Neil Gershenfeld’s work with Fab Labs, but I’d love to see more cross pollination between makerspaces and academia. And, and maybe you could talk a little bit about what your experience of working with Neil and The Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT has been.

Lars: I think there’s at least three areas where it’s really valuable to have strong academic partnerships and love to hear what Tim and Sarah think as well.

But the most obvious one are the resources that they have. Northeastern has been a great partner right now. There’s a gentleman there, Ben McCallister, who runs one of their makerspaces. And our ability to prototype and get say aluminum parts made on their water jets or whatnot, that’s essential. So the resources, the physical resources that they have are really powerful.

The other is their research capability. Early on, Neil Gershenfeld reached out to the Boston maker community and he invited us in and said, what are you working on? What are the not known problems?

Or what are the problems that are sort of research driven that we could help you answer. So to see their analysis of spun bond polypropylene, right. And then the trapping features of different products, and then how we could get things into that testing pipeline is huge.

We could never stand that up. I mean, we could, but it would be so exhaustive of our resources that we wouldn’t be able to focus on these other things that are more concrete. So having that research power behind us is amazing.

And then the other piece that is so valuable is their ability to call on networks, to call community actors together in a way that brings us around a bigger table.

We often have our heads on the ground. We have relationships with people we work with on a day to day basis. By definition, the greatest academic institutions are very broad community connections to different actors, whether it’s industry, government, private sector, nonprofit sector, and we can work together within that framework in a way that is very hard to escape when we’re focused on more sort of hand to mouth issues of organizational survival.

Tim: Last night I got an email from someone that I talk with on masks from the medical side for the last few months, and she has been working with a group in South Africa, a different group from the one I’ve been working with. Their question was basically like we have 150 thread count, and we know it’s not perfect.

How good is it? How do we verify thread count? That sort of question. And I pointed her to Cameron Blackburns‘s work at MIT Center for Bits and Atoms to show her. Take a look at this scan of the cotton t-shirt. And you can see that regardless of thread count, a piece of thread is made up of tons of much smaller strands and thread count says nothing about that. And the real hole is between the weft and the warp

So even if you have a thousand thread count, if it’s not tightly woven, that gap is still going to be there. So out of that conversation, I posted, to Neil’s Coronavirus issue tracker to say, Hey, you know what? I was thinking about ways that people can test locally. So one, one technique is bubble point. So you can basically take a membrane that’s submerged in water and put air pressure on one side. And if you measure what pressure you have to reach before you start seeing bubbles form on the other side of the membrane, you can infer something about the porosity of that filter.

So, in the issue tracker, I said, can we come up with a way where we take a soda bottle filled with air and a soda bottle filled with water and 3D print an adapter that holds a piece of filter between them. And we just put weights on the air bottle and get a rough sense of what it takes.

So that somebody in Africa who says like, this is the material we have. Can we at least find out if it’s better than nothing? You know the thing about filtration standards, like for masks. Knowing what standard has to be met is wildly different from having any sort of information on what you have to do to meet that standard.

So having this academic academic connection I think lets us know like. What’s the upper limit, what’s the best we can do? What are we shooting for? And then from there work it down to like what’s feasible, what’s economical, what’s deployable. I want to cut every single corner that I can cut safely. It’s so helpful to get the academic or the hospital clinical perspective that we’re not cutting any corners. This is the best way to do it.

Sarah: We could point to being able to disseminate some of this information on having set up the process.

I’m almost done with a doc that shows almost any Makerspace. So, one of the things that I did immediately in setting up the gowns program was going through a series of what would it have been like to make this in any other makerspace, what tools might have been available? And so I got a whole big set of documents.

Sample page from Sarah’s gown documentation

if you have this tool and it’s at 40 inches wide, how do you set up the pattern? If it’s at 60 inches wide, how do you set up the pattern? So I feel pretty ready to kind of disseminate this information nationally. (See the link below to Sarah’s documentation.)

Artisan’s Asylum continues to provide the templates for others to follow.

Links:

Artisan’s Asylum COVID PPE Page

Tim Butterworth’s Github for Pleated Surgical Mask Machine

Sarah Miller’s documentation on making gowns in makerspaces

OCMS Session on Gowns with Sarah Miller and Others

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IS9kAHxWiA8&feature=youtu.be&t=28

MIT’s Center for Bits & Atoms Coronavirus Issue Tracker