Tinkerers unite, turn out face shields by the hundreds

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 30, 2020 9:09 PM CT | Published: March 30, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Folks who are tinkerers and makers tend to see solutions. And the Midsouth Makers have never been so united or purposeful.

The 75-member group is creating medical face shields, made from a simple 3-D printed plastic headband, which they have been printing on their home 3-D printers since Friday, and functional shields, cut from transparency sheets sold in any office supply store.

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Sunday, a group strictly limited to 10 was putting the masks together in the group’s communal workshop off Bartlett Road. In a matter of hours Sunday, they turned out 500 shields to deliver to the Memphis Medical Society, which will distribute them.

“We’ve had other people stop in to help and we had to turn them away,” said Rich Thompson, president of the group and a systems engineer during the week at Dell Technologies. “We’re seriously limiting it to 10 people to stay within the guidelines. 

“This grew out of large global effort to print and create PPE (protective personal equipment),” he said. “This is a big ask. Usually, the makers can give you five or 10 minutes.”

The crew, a blend of hobbyist engineers and can-do types, all wearing face masks and bent over their work, included Jeff Rice, a Piperton firefighter, who was cutting the shields, five at time, on side-by-side laser cutters.

“They call us the nerd universe,” Rice said, looking up momentarily from his task.

It’s a quiet point of pride that a groundswell of face shield production around the world now is happening in maker groups, a global joining of hands to get gear to front-line health care workers.

The first face shield pattern, a more complicated version of the mask rolling off the assembly line in Bartlett, was designed by Josef Prusa, CEO of Prusa Research in the Czech Republic.

“He geared up Prusa’s printer farm to do it, but there was a need for simpler design,” Thompson said.

“It came out of the open-source community. The beauty of it is, you are not charged for it. It’s yours to take and modify.”

Prusa’s mask cost about 25 cents to make.

The model rolling off the line here costs several pennies apiece, and as a bonus, the holes that the shield attaches to can be cut with a three-hole punch.

“We asked the Memphis Medical Society what they wanted,” Thompson said. “They said, “Whatever will get us a face shield faster. Who cares? We need face shields.’

“I’d say this one is about 5-to-1 speed advantage,” Thompson said. “It’s not as durable; you’re not going to give it to your grandkids. You’ll put it on, and when you’re done, you’ll throw it away,” he said.

“In a testing facility, they may wear it all day. In a hospital, they may use one per patient.”

Sunday afternoon, Rice was turning out 10 shields every 28 minutes.

“Scaling up just means adding another 3-D printer,” said Claudio Donndelinger, who works on the FedEx Institute of Technology staff at the University of Memphis.

“You can have it fast. You can have it strong or pretty; pick two of the three,” he said. “We’re going for strong and fast,” noting that the limitation Sunday was a shortage of packing boxes, “which is a surprising bottleneck.”

Maker spaces like this one are turning out PPE around the globe, a way to pitch in, like Victory Gardens, in World War II.

The Midsouth Makers have also begun a sewing circle, turning out lined fabric face masks that can be used by the few people still allowed to visit family in hospitals.

Renee Timbs was engrossed in the project Sunday, separating the transparent face shields – printed in layers of five – after they were cut, and lending a hand in the laser room.

“I don’t know anybody who will be using one, but it doesn’t really matter,” she said, pausing a moment. “Folks need these. We’re all in this together.”

Each shield will be cleaned in bleach and then washed in 80% alcohol solution.

“They will be stored for three days to allow any potential trace virus to die,” Thompson said. “It can live on plastic for three days. By the time these are received, it will be past three days.”

The Midsouth Makers, coming up on its 11th year, is the oldest maker group in the region.

“We have lot of social touch points. Usually on Friday, we have an open house. Tuesday, we build things. If you can imagine it being built, we have probably built it,” Thompson said.

For a while, it was 3-D printed ukuleles. Then, there drone races.

Its service projects include hackathons, and education outreach to groups that can’t afford 3-D printers.

“Usually, we do independent projects. It’s been a while since we’ve rallied around the flag,” he said.

The face shield effort will involve every member of the group in some capacity.

People who want to help can go to the Midsouth Makers Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/TheMidsouthMakers/) and look for event or announcement notifications.

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Midsouth Makers Rich Thompson
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


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