Last Wednesday morning, I drove to a local hospital and pulled my car to the curb near the front door under the portico. It was windy and I wore a homemade cloth mask that covered my mouth and nose. Soon a surgeon and assistant emerged from the sliding doors and I opened my hatchback. Inside was a large, clear acrylic box. The doctor—also masked—reached in and picked up the box gingerly.

“I hope you know you’re saving lives with these,” he said, before disappearing once again through the whooshing doors.

It was a scenario I could not, in my wildest dreams, have predicted even eight weeks ago. 

Aerosol box

I’m the director of a non-profit start-up in far Western Kentucky. Sprocket, Inc. is a center for innovative programs for education, entrepreneurship, and community learning. Among other things, we have a variety of tech tools available to the community in our small makerspace. In early March, I was concerning myself with many of my usual struggles as an administrator: grant applications, financial reviews, fundraising and the like. Always chief among my struggles was often how to tell the uninitiated: just what is a makerspace?

The Coronavirus was not unknown to me. As a bit of a news junkie it was certainly on my radar screen. I just didn’t realize my small city of Paducah, located in McCracken County, like the rest of the United States, was positioned squarely on the train tracks that the virus train was distantly hurtling down.

That is, until the last minute.

As late as March 6th, my daughter-in-law called me asking if I thought it would be a good idea to cancel my eight-year-old granddaughter’s elective surgery—a tonsillectomy—scheduled for March 20th. We talked through the pros and cons for a long time before settling, hesitantly, on the side of cancellation.

One week later, the idea of us having been uncertain about what to do was unthinkable. By then, all elective surgeries were canceled, schools closed, and the phrase “social distancing” on everyone’s lips. A theory was beginning to form in my head. One that has since hardened into belief: in a pandemic, the world changes at a rate of approximately 10% a day. And is, therefore, 100% different every ten days.

The news that Governor Andy Beshear was “shutting down” the state of Kentucky early—and, as it turned out, presciently—was probably three days away when the enormity of the situation began to settle upon me and many of my friends and colleagues.

This realization was followed very quickly by many others. Chief among them was the precarious position healthcare workers were facing on what would likely soon be the frontlines of virus treatment in our region.

Paducah, Kentucky is at the center of a large agrarian area. The county, bordered on one side by the banks of the Ohio River, is within shouting distance of the southern tip of Illinois. We boast two major hospitals that serve not only our city and county but, in large part, many smaller surrounding counties. With close ties in many directions to these hospitals, we quickly got the word that adequate personal protective equipment—or “PPE”—in an amount adequate to outlast a pandemic, was not to be had.

Face shieldsSupply chains bent, snapped.

In Paducah, in Chicago, and in makerspaces all over America, we rolled up our sleeves.

Over the course of one weekend, our small makerspace at Sprocket transitioned into a small PPE manufacturing facility.

By Monday, we were asking for—and receiving—donations to support the effort.

Face shield frames were printed on our 3D printers and completed with the application of donated clear transparencies. We reached out to our Maker Founder group, many of whom own 3D printers. A good number of them began printing face shield frames in their homes. Sprocket became a point of distribution for those sewing cloth masks or printing ear-savers.

Shield strap

Aerosol boxes quickly became a focus of our efforts. Developed by a Taiwanese doctor in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the aerosol box acts as a clear barrier between doctor and patient. It is a transparent cube made of acrylic or polycarbonate that covers a patient’s head during endotracheal intubation, a necessary procedure for infected new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients who suffer respiratory failure. Sprocket quickly began sourcing quarter-inch plexiglass, cutting it on our laser cutter, and gluing up boxes. The design (with hospital feedback) became more refined and effective with each iteration.

It was an aerosol box that I delivered to the hospital that windy Wednesday. As I drove away, I realized the question, “What is a makerspace?” had been answered in way I would never have imagined.

Now almost eight weeks into the crisis, we have no idea where it will end. But we can and do—with continuing community support—partner with those in healthcare. We make and refine equipment they never dreamed they’d need. Recent examples include custom shields that offer extra protection to an ultrasound technician or dentist. This week we’ve added 3-D print valves for pressurized shields. Next week…who knows?

What is a makerspace? On a normal day, it’s collaborative workplace for making, learning, exploring and sharing that uses high tech to no tech tools.

Now at Sprocket—and in makerspaces across America—it’s a place that manufactures and sometimes even develops lifesaving protective equipment for 21st-century heroes.

Aerosol box
Aerosol box