These days, face shields and face masks are commonplace. In the earliest weeks of the pandemic, though, personal protective equipment (PPE) was more scarce and sought-after for front-line workers. Before big factories had the equipment, molds and supplies needed to spit out face shields by the millions, the need was met by local makers like Todd Blatt, owner of Custom 3D Stuff.
Custom 3D Stuff sells prop replicas, jewelry and just about anything else you can imagine. Blatt makes creative use of the tools at the Baltimore Node, a hackerspace in Station North, to bring his designs to life. As COVID-19 upended business for entrepreneurs across the city, he started using those same tools to create face shields.
“It started out as this temporary, gap-filling measure,” Blatt said. “I’m not a high-scale production factory, and there are better ways to make these things than each by hand, but I had the material and had the tools, and there was an immediate need for it.”
Even getting that material presented a challenge — as industries scrambled to prepare their response to the pandemic, Blatt saw a worldwide shortage of plastic and elastic. Suppliers didn’t list their products online because it would move too fast, but Blatt tracked down about 150 sheets of thick, durable plastic. It would be enough to produce a few thousand shields, by which time he figured they’d be more readily available from bigger producers.
It takes Blatt about seven to 10 minutes to make a single shield. He boxes them up and sells them at-cost in sets of 10 or 25. At first, almost all the product went directly to front-line workers in hospitals, care clinics and other spots that stayed open throughout the spring shutdown. Blatt even donated over 1000 shields.
More recently, he’s slowed shield production and sells boxes to anyone who wants them. You can buy a pack of 10 face shields on Custom 3D Stuff’s site.
“In the beginning, I was only selling to front-line workers. Now, it’s different. The demand is definitely caught up, and the materials are back in stock,” he said. “People are still coming, but it’s not like when we were originally doing it just as fast as we could make them.”
With support from a Baltimore Development Corporation’s PPE production grant, he purchased a second laser cutter, doubling his capacity using the equipment at the Node. And the Node’s community of innovative designers and dedicated craftspeople meant Blatt could count on a handful of his fellow members pitching in to help cut, assemble, clean and package the shields.
His design is simple, a flat plastic shield with a foam band cushioning the forehead, keeping the plastic offset a few inches from the face. With fewer parts, it’s easier to assemble. Plus, it’s more comfortable than a face mask—at least in Blatt’s opinion—and covers the eyes as well as nose and mouth. However, he said that face masks and face shields can work in tandem for the best protection, and encourages customers to double up to prevent spread.
“I’m not a doctor. I’m not saying it’s better or anything, but they fit the rules,” he said. “When I go to the grocery store I wear it because I see other people there who have their nose hanging over their masks.”
With the country’s number of infections continuing to rise, Blatt acknowledged that it’s not completely safe to go anywhere. But with added comfort and protection, the shields may be a better option for more than just short shopping trips, but for those who work long shifts, or who wear glasses (which can fog up over a face mask), or who want to stay safe while attending protests or other higher-risk activities.
Knowing the shields would be a temporary venture for his business, Blatt never even set them up on his website. Instead, he advertised the products through Facebook posts and reached customers through word of mouth. While his normal production slowed significantly in March and April, he said it’s now back up to pre-pandemic levels. Recently, he created neon signage for North Avenue Market, and scoop size models for The Charmery.
After years in the fabrication industry, Blatt has a growing network of customers — and collaborators.
In fact, Blatt worked with fellow Made In Baltimore member Open Works in the earliest days of the pandemic to mobilize local makers who could contribute to PPE production. In 2014, he founded We the Builders, a network of makers around the world with 3D printing capabilities. When Open Works spearheaded the Makers Unite! project, a collaborative effort to crowdsource face shield production, Blatt spread the call for 3D-printed face shield parts to every We the Builders contact within a 150 miles of Baltimore.
Blatt said it was significant that makers could come together to do the essential work of creating PPE amid the pandemic.
“It’s really cool that the Node is there,” he said. “Baltimore’s really lucky that we have — I was going to say half a dozen, but I can think of that many. There’s definitely a dozen makerspaces around. A lot of people have access to the places where you can make stuff.”
Thanks for reading! Please visit Custom 3D Stuff’s online store to check out all kinds of incredible custom- and ready-made products here.
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