“We’ve been here from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m. every day”: This 3-D printing company is mass-producing plastic face shields for health care workers

“We’ve been here from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m. every day”: This 3-D printing company is mass-producing plastic face shields for health care workers

I was always a techie. In university, at Wilfrid Laurier, I learned how to build 3-D printers in my apartment by reading open-source design manuals online. That led to buying and selling 3-D printers, which led to InkSmith, the company I founded in 2016, which works with school boards to bring technology into the classroom. We design and manufacture hardware—including 3-D printers, laser cutters and robotics kits—design curriculums and train teachers to teach their students concepts like design thinking and computational thinking. We’ve worked with almost every school board in Ontario. By January, our business was just starting to take off: we had set up distributors and resellers in 55 countries. It was a boom time for us.

I’ve been sounding the alarm about Covid-19 for a few months now, to the point where my family and friends thought I was a nut. Then, in mid-March, we got a call from Neil Naik, a doctor and vice-president of the Kitchener-Waterloo Academy of Medicine. He told us that health care workers urgently need face shields and personal protective equipment, and that other companies had already created some 3-D-printable models of face shields. So that day at 11 a.m. we just started throwing printers on desks and scrambling to print as many shields as we could. It takes a 3-D printer an hour to fabricate a face shield, but a laser cutter only takes 30 seconds. We drafted up our own laser-cut design using Solid Works, which is 3-D modelling software, and went from producing six units a day on the 3-D printer to 8,000 units on the laser cutter. We haven’t stopped since. We’ve been here from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m. every day for a week.

We probably tried 80 iterations of the mask to get the perfect fit. We had couriers running back and forth between all the hospitals in the K-W region to get front-line workers’ feedback. Patrick Gaskin, the CEO of Cambridge Memorial Hospital, was literally our courier for his hospital. Our face shields are already being used at Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington, Grand River Hospital in Kitchener and dozens more. Most Ontario hospitals have samples of the shields and many of them have placed large orders that we will fill as soon as we can.

In order for our masks to be used in health care facilities, we needed to be licensed by Health Canada, which means we need a whole bunch of special sanitation procedures in place. Tridome, the construction company, helped us erect a sanitation tent right outside our headquarters in just 36 hours. That’s where all our shields are cleaned, packed and shipped out. When we first started producing shields, we wanted the design to be open-source so anyone with the means could make them. But without proper sanitation protocols in place, that’s not realistic or safe. We had also organized a community effort where anyone with access to a 3-D printer could print off the visor for a shield and drop them off in a box outside our office. We would wash and sanitize the visors, then attach them to laser-cut shields and donate them to underfunded hospitals and health care providers. Because of the quarantine, we can’t ask anyone to leave their house for a non-essential drop-off, so we’ve stopped taking donations.

I’m an action guy, and so are the members of my team. We get stuff done. We hired 30 new workers for the assembly line, and we currently have a dozen laser cutters working to mass-produce shields. We plan on tripling that number. By next week we’ll be producing tens of thousands of units a day, which is pretty crazy. Soon we will be able to manufacture enough face shields to meet the needs of every hospital in Canada. Then we’ll turn our eyes south to help out our neighbours and friends in the U.S. Last night, we had our first night shift, and we’ll be running around the clock for the foreseeable future. I think in a week’s time, we’ll probably have 150 people working machines to make this happen.

We decided to name our product “The Canadian Shield”—a punny geological joke. I thought it might bring a little levity to this difficult period. It’s also patriotic and harks back to our community and country. Why did we drop everything to start making shields? It was the right thing to do. We teach kids in school to empathize with someone who has a problem, come up with ideas for how to fix it, and use the tools at hand to solve it. That’s exactly what we’ve done.

As told to Isabel B. Slone