The humming sound of whirring machines fills the otherwise quiet space at Greensboro’s Forge. Tables littered with crafting materials, pottery wheels and lathe machines sit lonely, waiting for their masters to return and render them useful once again.

Most of the organization’s resources remain untouched since the building closed to the public after the city’s stay-at-home order a few weeks ago. But in one corner of the space, two machines work tirelessly, without the constant supervision of a human companion.

A pair of 3-D printers buzz in harmony as they etch to life what look like plastic visors like the ones worn by tennis players. On a table nearby, dozens of readymade pieces cover the surface, their bright colors adding a vibrancy to the gray atmosphere.

“We had a meeting with our board members with how we were going to respond to this crisis,” says Joe Rotondi, executive director of the makerspace. “We thought we would keep an eye on what was going on in the global maker community. It’s been really incredible.”

What Rotondi and Forge staff eventually discovered was a design for a plastic face shield that medical professionals and others on the frontlines of the coronavirus epidemic can wear as PPE.

One of the Forge’s 3-D printers prints a visor. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Originally designed by a crowdsourced community, the visor shield is meant to fit a person’s forehead and fasten behind their head with an elastic or rubber band. A sheet of clear plastic gets attached to knobs on the front of the visor, acting as a shield and completing the piece .

Rotondi says the group of makers associated with the Forge is working with their counterparts from the Alamance County maker community to put together both pieces.

While thousands of people across the country have been sewing face masks for both personal and community use, face shields act as another layer of protection for health workers on top of face masks.

“It’s a very different product,” says Michelle Schneider, vice president and chief philanthropy officer of Cone Health Hospital. “The cloth mask is the lowest level of protection.”

The face mask on the other hand, offers increased protection, says Rotondi.

“It covers someone’s face and protects their N-95 mask, protects what other safety gear they have and is a hard stop for any wet particulates,” he explains. “Say if someone coughs in their face, especially with medical professionals, they’re right up against people who are being intubated. Because there’s such a shortage of N-95 masks, they’re doing anything they can do extend the life of them and being able to have an actual shield extends the life of them and also protects their eyes and anything on their face. They can also sanitize this.”

He models a few versions makers have already printed to show how easy they are to use.

Rotondi picks up a pink headband that he printed and, with a regular three-hole punch, stamps three perforations into the edge of a separate sheet of clear plastic. Then, he takes the sheet and snaps three corresponding knobs into the holes to affix the shield to the headpiece.

The kind of visor locals are making has 3 knobs that allow plastic sheets to be three-hole punched and attached into. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

While it took a couple of tries with different designs, Rotondi says much of the work for designs had already been done abroad in countries like Italy where COVID-19 first spread.

“I think it’s interesting seeing how a design that was globally-sourced got into the hands of different makers in this area,” he says.

There are about 40 3-D printers locally dedicated to creating the headpieces, Rotondi says. While 40 might seem like a lot, Rotondi says it’s necessary to get the kind of volume they need, because of how much time it takes to print one piece.

“Depending on the printer, it takes about three to six hours,” he says.

One of the local makers who is printing a bulk of the pieces is Michael Czeiszperger, the owner of 3D Upfitters, a Greensboro company that 3-D prints enclosures for 3-D printers. Czeiszperger has 16 printers total, half of which are dedicated to creating the visor pieces.

“When the stay-at-home order came out, orders came to a halt,” he says. “So, I’m sitting there thinking, I’m full-up and no one is buying, so why not use these printers to do good?

Because there are so many people across the country dedicated to the effort, Czeiszperger says, plastic suppliers are starting to run out of raw materials. Czeiszperger adds that he has enough plastic to keep printing and has already made about 100 visors that have been delivered to the Forge.

“It seems like something to do, even if it’s small,” he says.

A few hundred visors have already been printed and he plans to do a community call to make more, Rotondi says, now that he’s been able to finalize the product and establish a relationship with local hospitals.

Dozens of visors have been made by local makers. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

If all goes well, the Forge might test out other designs that are easier to make but less protective. The more basic editions could be useful for people who work in places like grocery stores or homeless shelters.

The goal is to contribute to the cause in any way possible.

“It’s nice to be able to make something that’s useful,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to do something that’s in the core mission of the Forge.”

Schneider, the vice president and chief philanthropy officer of Cone Health Hospital says the work Rotondi and others are doing is not going unnoticed by hospital staff.

“I think it’s really important for people to know that we are grateful, and we are ensuring that the products are safe for our workers,” she says. “We feel the love and the support from the community and we’re working hard.”

To learn more about the local effort to 3D print masks and get involved, fill out the form here and then contact the Forge through their Facebook page.

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