“Do what you can where you are with what you have,” goes the saying attributed to Theodore Roosevelt. In the heart of Downtown Boston, Fab@CIC has responded to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic with the tools at its disposal: a fleet of digital fabrication equipment capable of producing in-demand, and potentially life-saving, personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Located on the first floor of 50 Milk at CIC Boston within Render Coffee, Fab@CIC is home to a wide array of machines — think 3D printers and laser cutters — usually only found in university workshops or at large firms. Any Boston area resident can access the equipment via monthly membership, and the makerspace regularly hosts workshops and trainings on the art and science of fabrication. But as COVID-19 began to spread through the United States, the Fab@CIC team pivoted away from their daily operations to become an ad hoc PPE manufacturer. 

Nimble By Nature

For Julia Hansen, manager of Fab@CIC, the first inkling that makers would be involved in the response for PPE came from abroad. “In mid-March we saw news articles about teams of makers in Italy who hacked the design of a hospital ventilator valve, recreated the digital files, and started 3D-printing them for hospitals that were running out,” she recalls. 

However, the Fab@CIC team took a different approach. “Ventilators are kind of the last resort medical supply for COVID patients,” Hansen says. “There’s a greater need for supplies such as masks, face shields, N95 respirators, medical gowns, and even gloves and hair nets for when doctors and nurses are dealing with sick or potentially sick people, before they’re in really critical condition. 

“Also, the ventilator piece that can be 3D-printed is just one piece of the whole machine,” Hansen explains. “If there aren’t enough machines to use them, then they’re not as useful.”

Aiming to maximize their impact, the Fab@CIC team spent about a week scouring maker discussion forums, listening in to zoom calls with doctors and scientists with the MGB Center for COVID Innovation group, and comparing notes with other makerspaces engaging in the PPE response. They settled on producing surgical-grade masks, adopting a design from UnityPoint Health of Grand Rapids, Iowa, via its affiliated organization, MakerNurse based at MIT. 

It takes two minutes to laser-cut the material for six units with the geometric precision necessary to create effective masks. Those pieces are then bundled together into sets and handed off to sewing volunteers, who can work from their homes. The final step in the process is for distribution volunteers to take the completed masks to facilities in need. Local hospitals have tested the masks and deemed them as effective as the highly sought after N95 masks when properly fitted and worn with filters and skin adhesive. 

The suspension of day to day operations allows the Fab@CIC team to focus exclusively on mask production and put their monthly budget to the task. They are purchasing fabric from Sewphisticated, a local discount fabric store that is classified as an essential business under the Massachusetts stay at home order, with the material cost per mask coming in at just under $1. As awareness of the need for everyone to wear masks grows, online donations are flowing in to help cover the cost of fabric. 

The laser cutter quickly prepares the fabric to be transformed into surgical-grade PPE.

The laser cutter quickly prepares the fabric to be transformed into surgical-grade PPE.

Strength In Numbers

As Fab@CIC was figuring out how it could help the fight against COVID-19, a tweet about Dr. Peter Slavin, president of the renowned Massachusetts General Hospital, was circulating on social media. He, like Hansen, was inspired by the Italian ventilator project and implored anyone with a 3D printer to get involved making PPE as soon as possible. 

This call to arms galvanized the Boston maker community and helped lead to Mass General Brigham convening the Center for COVID-19 Innovation, which organized scientists, doctors, researchers and participating makerspaces into work groups to tackle emergency sourcing of PPE items. Mass Life Sciences, a CIC client, informed Fab@CIC of the newly forming center just as conversations between makerspaces and other health organizations had begun in parallel. Thus, concurrent budding efforts coalesced into an organized effort. 

While large hospital systems such as Mass General could leverage their size and deep pockets to order custom PPE from established manufacturers that could convert their facilities to PPE production, smaller hospitals and social service organizations were falling through the cracks. The fledgling makerspace network found that these organizations were interested in ordering PPE in smaller batches of a few hundred or thousand, instead of tens of thousands. Fab@CIC has delivered masks to Girdler House, a nursing home in Beverly, Somerville Homeless Coalition, Hope House in Roxbury, and MAB Community Services so far.  

In light of the mass public needs, multiple pockets of makerspaces, health care-oriented organizations, and concerned citizens have stepped up to work together in response to the growing demand for PPE. This necessary work has not only resulted in the generation of supplies but also fostered relationships to create a network that did not exist several months ago. 

Fab@CIC initially set a goal of 1000 units but exceeded that number and has designs on making much more.

Fab@CIC initially set a goal of 1000 units but exceeded that number and has designs on making much more.

Makers United

The Greater Boston area is home to a variety of makerspaces, each with their own practices, areas of expertise, and respective communities — but these spaces have not always enjoyed much connection. With the onset of COVID-19, they are now joining forces around a common goal. New lines of communication have opened up, bringing Fab@CIC into ongoing conversation with other local spaces such as Artisan’s Asylum, Boston Makers, The Brookline Makery, South End Technology Center, and Cambridge Hackspace.

“Makerspaces are now sharing their volunteer safety protocols and tips on where to source a particular type of material and assisting each others’ PPE efforts through swapping certain equipment and connecting volunteers with particular skills to the space that need them,” Hansen says. “This increased flow of information has allowed the distributed nature of PPE production to be more efficient.”

These connections have led to logistical support essential to the success of the project. As an example, “Lowell Makes was one of the first out of the gate in prototyping different face mask designs and getting them tested by local hospitals,” says Hansen. “But that makerspace and others were concerned about the liability implications of providing large numbers of PPE made outside of traditional manufacturing facilities.” When the issue came up in the network’s shared Slack channel, Hansen brought the question to Stas Gayshan, managing director at CIC and founder of CIC Boston, who is also a lawyer. He then brought it to his lawyer’s network and got a firm to sign on as a pro bono legal advisor for the makerspace group.

To further facilitate this collaboration, MakeTank, a subgroup of makerspace managers within the Boston Society of Architecture, has begun to track these newly-formed networks, creating a visualization of how this initiative has spanned across the city and surrounding areas. Ultimately, MakeTank aims to make available a comprehensive resource of spaces that provide particular skills, supplies, or machinery that may be needed moving forward. Such a “makers map” would serve as a tool for navigating the makerspace landscape throughout the Boston area, Hansen says, helping future distributed fabrication efforts while promoting visibility of makerspaces to policy makers and the general public.

For Hansen, this upward trajectory of collaboration reflects one of the core values of CIC. “I think that’s what CIC is all about — connecting people and providing a space to create the goodwill within our community that helps people to work together and do more together than they would on their own,” she says. “We see that with Venture Café and all the community events we put on at CIC. But that is now just starting with the makerspace community in Boston.” 

CIC’s mission to provide space for innovative minds has always stimulated meaningful connections across diverse communities. In these unprecedented times, this mission remains the same with a vision to connect on a larger scale for greater purposes. This global situation has revealed the significant impact that our communities have in tackling local, regional, and worldwide issues with the highest sense of urgency. 

For Leo McElroy, FabLab Assistant at Fab@CIC, making masks “serves more than just the people receiving them. People see the tremendous distress in their communities and want to help but don’t know how,” McElroy says. “This distributed production of PPE provides them with an outlet for meaningful work that brings people together as they stay physically distanced apart.” 

As this pandemic continues to push society to greater limits, it is clear that the response will be to push back harder while reaching extraordinary heights. 

If you would like to donate materials, labor, or if you’re willing to help distribute PPE, fill out this form.

If you would like to make a monetary donation to the FAB@CIC project, go here