Stuck in self-isolation, Phil Tucker figured he’d build a shelf.
It was early March, and the Toronto-based software engineer was on lockdown with his wife and two kids after his five-year-old son came down with a fever and cough. (He’s doing much better.) Mr. Tucker, who works at Microsoft, was hunting for a project. Since he’d stocked up on food and run out of storage space, he decided to put a shelf up in the basement, between two ceiling beams.
First, he needed some brackets. So he turned to his 3D printer, a machine that makes things by slowly laying down dozens of layers of molten plastic. “That’s the kind of thing 3D printer people do – they make little nonsense stuff like that,” he says.
He paused, wondering why he was wasting his printing supplies on something so inconsequential. Instead, he downloaded a popular template for a medical face shield with a plastic headband – essentially a splash guard for your face. His printer’s been running ever since.
“That’s it,” he says over a faint screeching noise. “You can probably hear it in the background, whirring and whining away.”
Mr. Tucker is part of a group of Canadians using their expertise to produce much-needed medical supplies for the health care workers fighting COVID-19. Tinkerers have come together in a group called Project Northern Lights, an effort to design, build and deliver everything from masks to portable intensive care units. While governments move to boost the production of essential medical supplies, stories of need have inspired many to step up and help any way they can.
Chelsea O’Hara, a Toronto-based software developer, started the group as her anxiety about the coronavirus pandemic intensified. Like many in the group, she felt frustrated doing nothing. “I’ve got a computer, and I know how to program,” she says. “I want to help.”
She created Project Northern Lights a little over a week ago, using the popular work messaging app Slack. Since then, more than 230 people have poured in, all sharing Ms. O’Hara’s frustration. And every day, more people join up.
“I could see all these people discussing solutions and coming together,” she says. “It was just this incredible feeling of community and teamwork.”
The project has attracted a small army of developers, engineers and designers, all looking to help fight the pandemic. It has also brought in wedding decorators, seamstresses, film set builders, high schoolers, lifeguards, electricians, illustrators, event planners and auto glass installers, who just want to pitch in however they can.
The group is broken down into project discussions. In one, people are debating the finer points of building a mechanical ventilator. In another, they’re talking about transportation: How do you deliver hundreds of face shields to an Indigenous community in the Northwest Territories or bucket-brigade a shipment of medical gowns from Nova Scotia to British Columbia?
In a third discussion, a man in Thunder Bay, Ont., is sharing his plans for a temporary ICU, a tiny field hospital made out of lumber and sheet plastic that can be assembled using an Ikea-style manual and material you can buy at a hardware store.
Though the group has people skilled in everything from bioengineering to medical device design, most members have no experience making medical supplies, so they’re figuring things out as they go. Take gloves, for instance. “We’re talking about getting moulds of hands,” says Ms. O’Hara with a chuckle.
So far, face shields and other personal protective equipment for health-care workers, including gowns and masks, have been the project’s top priority. It’s just as well, since they’re infinitely cheaper and easier to make than ventilators.
Dr. Alun Ackery, an emergency physician at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, says that while his hospital isn’t short on protective equipment right now, any contribution to their supplies is welcome, even if they’re not being used just yet. “We’re in the quiet before the storm,” he says. “But this is a long game.”
A few days ago, one of his neighbours dropped off a bunch of N95 masks at his front door. “It’s inspiring. We’ve had so many people trying to help us,” he says.
Kathy Brock, a political science professor at Queen’s University who has studied citizen engagement, says initiatives like Project Northern Lights often crop up in times of crisis. “People are feeling like they don’t have a lot of control in their lives," she says. "By helping out, they’re taking back some control.”
There’s another reason people want to help, according to Prof. Brock: They want to bond. “It’s instinctive,” she says.
While some in the group are just getting started, Rahim Bhimani is already making and delivering his own medical gear. Mr. Bhimani, who teaches design at York University, has been using his laser cutter to make face shields. Each consists of three pieces: a clear plastic screen, plus an adjustable elastic strap with Velcro tips and a forehead support made of neoprene or foam, both cut by hand. A few staples hold the whole thing together.
Mr. Bhimani’s laser cutter can churn out a screen every 90 seconds. “The beast,” as he calls it, is as big as an oven, and he keeps it in his parents’ basement.
“These are pretty easy to make, and I like making stuff," he says. "I figure I might as well be of value instead of just watching Netflix all day.”
Mr. Bhimani has enough supplies to make 600 shields and plans to deliver his first batch to a Greater Toronto Area hospital in the coming days. After that, he hopes others will pitch in to pay for the shields, since they each cost close to $5 in materials alone. (So far, he estimates he and a friend have spent nearly $2,500 buying supplies from Amazon, fabric and hardware stores, and wholesalers.)
“Break-even would be awesome,” he says.
Businesses are also stepping in to help the crowdsourcing effort. When workers left Kitchener, Ont.-based InkSmith’s office a week ago Friday, they still worked at an educational technology company. By Saturday morning, InkSmith had become a face-shield manufacturer.
The company is putting together shields from the parts printed by hobbyists like Mr. Tucker and then donating them to local health networks. At the same time, InkSmith is preparing to mass-produce its own shields to sell to the Ontario government, using laser cutters the company makes and sells to school boards.
It’s been more than a week since Mr. Tucker fired up his 3D printer, and it’s still working day and night, even after he’s gone to bed. “The sound is a rather musical whine of motors changing directions," he notes. "But it does get old.”
So far, he has amassed more than 60 face-shield headbands – each one takes two hours to make. He’ll be sending some to InkSmith, whose offices are more than 100 kilometres away, and the rest to Michael Garron Hospital, in Toronto’s east end. “It feels good to do something," he says. "But I also realize I’m not saving the world here. I’m just part of a larger process. If all I do is print face-shield parts throughout this pandemic, then that’s a useful effort for me to take part in.”
Meanwhile, he never did build that shelf. His wife recently pointed out a spot in the basement – the same one he’d picked out – and asked whether they could put some bins up there for storage.
“I have a plan for that,” he told her. “I just can’t do it now.”
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