Community comes through: Factory Two in Flint steps up to make face shields and masks during the pandemic

A man makes face shields at Factory Two in Flint, Michigan.
At Factory Two, Mike Wright tests prototypes for face shields. “We’re focused on producing items that are easy for people to sanitize,” Wright said, “and provide a stop-gap measure in a time of need.” Photo: Brant McDonald/Flint City Photography

News was coming in from Italy. The coronavirus pandemic had already gained a strong foothold there, and stories were pouring in about the shortage of ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE). Makers began working on designs for equipment that they could fabricate at home.

At first it was controversial. No one wanted to do anything that would inadvertently increase risk. But, at the same time, makers and DIYers realized that they had the tools, skillsets and equipment to lend a hand. If there was a safe way to do it, they wanted to help.

As novel coronavirus spread throughout the United States, the need for PPE quickly outstripped the available supply. The shortages would impact nurses, doctors, frontline workers and first responders in communities around the country.

With an ethos of ingenuity, innovation and idea-sharing, makers started devising more solutions. In mid-March, Josef Průša, who founded the Czech company Prusa Research, uploaded a file to his company’s website that would allow anyone in the world with a 3D printer to make a face shield.

Roughly 4,300 miles away in Flint, Michigan, this inspired Mike Wright. Wright is a co-founder and volunteer board member at Factory Two, as well as chief technology officer at the Mott Foundation. He and the Factory Two staff were aware of designs coming out of the Czech Republic because Factory Two had forged ties both locally and internationally with the burgeoning movement of makers.

Factory Two was opened June 2017 in one of the historic Dort Motor Car Company buildings.
Photo: Mike Wright

Launched in downtown Flint in 2015, Factory Two is a community makerspace that is dedicated to the idea that hands-on learning, creating and sharing can empower and transform lives. As part of Red Ink Flint, Factory Two has been a grantee of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation since 2016.

The makerspace is outfitted with a range of tools and technologies, from metal- and woodworking tools, to a vinyl cutter, drones and a coal-fired forge. Students, small businesses, artists and entrepreneurs all use Factory Two space, equipment and training to learn and share skills and bring their ideas to life. The makerspace also engages area youth in fostering a “maker mindset.” Students learn by doing, creating and joining project-based communities, and they cultivate confidence in their own problem-solving skills.

Factory Two face shields

A tinkerer by nature, Wright began testing out prototypes for a face shield at Factory Two. Because PPE and the raw materials to produce it are both in short supply, he looked for untapped sources of materials. He discovered that the old plastic transparencies a lot of people had stashed away in storage could be pressed into service as shields.

Volunteer Gary Mueller, a retired Flint Community Schools teacher, helps to produce face shield forehead pieces using an epilogue laser cutter at Factory Two.
Photo: Brant McDonald

Factory Two staff and volunteers liked the prototype design, but the makerspace only owned one small working 3D printer, and a few other printers that were “on the fritz.” Plus, production took 20 to 30 minutes to print one shield. To be truly helpful, Factory Two needed a solution that would scale up faster.

Then they landed on a laser cut model.

Soon, Factory Two had turned out 75 face shields. One Facebook post and a day later, every shield was spoken for, and positive feedback was streaming in from frontline workers who had started using them. Factory Two joined #GetUsPPE, a grassroots movement of physicians, scientists, programmers, concerned citizens and makers.

With a prototype in place and established roots in the Flint community, Factory Two shifted production and distribution of face shields into higher gear.

A labor of love and a one-stop hub

In two weeks, even with staff on furlough during the quarantine, Factory Two mobilized a cadre of business, community, youth and university volunteers to create a one-stop hub for producing and distributing face shields and masks.

Face shields could be fabricated at the makerspace. For the mask design, they settled on the Montana model, a 3D design out of Billings that’s well-vetted by medical professionals. The model is easy to produce with minimal components. The filter itself is a piece of surgical cloth — the type used to wrap and autoclave instruments.

Factory Two sourced enough materials to produce 500 to 600 masks.

Dr. Bobby Mukkamala shows sample of a 3D-printed mask he produced for distribution at Factory Two.
Photo: Mukkamala family

Dr. Bobby Mukkamala, a local physician and community advocate, is spearheading the 3D mask-making effort. A 3D enthusiast, Mukkamala happened to already have 10 printers he planned to donate to Flint schools this spring. He and his son Nikhil, an engineering student at the University of Michigan, converted their dining room into a 3D print shop and teamed up with John Hardman, another Factory Two founder and owner of Naan Stop food truck in Flint. Their maker force expanded when a team of graduate students and professors from Kettering University’s First Robotics Team jumped in with more home-based 3D printing power.

With new capacity, face mask production increased to 50 masks a day. But supplies were still an issue for masks and shields.

Kettering grad student Nitin Edla at Factory Two packages the components needed for assembling 3D-printed face masks.
Photo: Mike Wright

That’s when Roger’s Foam, a family-owned business in Flint, stepped in. Jeremy Shuck, maintenance manager at Roger’s, offered to help. It turned out that the foam fabricator was perfectly positioned to supply cut foam pieces in just the right sizes for Factory Two masks.

And Jeremy took the offer one step further. To help with face shields as well, he put Factory Two in touch with one of the company’s plastic suppliers, who in turn scoured the country to source plastic sheeting. He found 500 pounds of sheeting, and Factory Two placed an order to meet its supply needs and to share with makerspaces in Ann Arbor, West Michigan, Detroit and Lansing.

Through combined community action, the raw material can be converted into 20,000 shields. “I am inspired by our volunteers in Flint who are working on PPE at Factory Two and all of the ingenious solutions I’ve seen from makerspaces across the country,” said Craig Farrington, Factory Two manager and acting director. “All these solutions show that, when our backs are against the wall, the community comes through.”

Distribution and making a difference

While observing social distancing, Factory Two is staffing a pickup window at its building on North Grand Traverse Street in Flint, has set up an online form for requests, and is distributing face shields and masks to locations around the county.

Factory Two face shields are distributed to frontline workers and volunteers throughout Flint and Genesee County.
Photo: Brant McDonald/Flint City Photography

No one sees the makers’ solutions as a substitute for medical-grade PPE, but at a time of supply chain shortages, it makes an important contribution.

“This is just stop-gap,” Wright said. “The supply chain will catch up, and the curve will go down. But it’s good to know that, in a time of need, we could step up and make an impact.”

For countless nurses and doctors and staff and volunteers across Flint and Genesee County who are working at food and water distribution centers, driving patients to dialysis appointments, working at the fire department or holding down essential retail jobs, Factory Two shields and masks are indispensable.

They also are an enduring sign from Flint’s makerspace that when community comes together, we are all made stronger.