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Maker culture’s DIY spirit is helping us get through this pandemic

As engineers, doctors, and everyday citizens tackle urgent problems with repurposed materials and raw ingenuity, the Maker Faire vision is more potent than ever.

Maker culture’s DIY spirit is helping us get through this pandemic
Boston area high school teacher Bennett Ahearn picks up a mask he 3D-printed at home for donation to Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport, Mass. [Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images]

Right now, all over the world, people are engaging in the construction of critical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE), respirators, and other clinical items, using tools and techniques such as 3D printing, sewing, repurposing factory equipment, and other skills and ways of thinking. These innovations, in part, seem to have risen up from an early foundation of Maker Faire education. This education, and the communications describing it, have created a pipeline for information of how to innovate PPEs rapidly across the globe.

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That’s not to say that every PPE innovation can be attributed to Maker Faire. But without Maker Faire, we may not have built the skills and the networks to rapidly innovate in the way many of us are able to do to keep ourselves safe and save lives.

Maker Faire was founded in 2006 by Dale Dougherty—who’d launched Make magazine the year before—as a type of “county fair” for hobbyists and those who were enthusiastic about creating new innovations involving all types of materials. The event was like a fusion of electronics and mechanics shop classes, with sewing, crafting, and other forms of making added to the experience. Maker Faire was a place for nuts and bolts, electrodes, fabric, soldering, and engines—all at once, and maybe even all in the same creation.

The timing was perfect, as schools were sidelining shop classes for computer courses, and students were increasingly focusing on screens rather than physical tools. Maker Faire created a place and a space for us to learn what it means to work with our hands, and to use our physical and network spaces to share what we made with each other.

I attended the first Maker Faire at the San Francisco Bay Area’s San Mateo County Event Center, which is also the same venue used for the far more traditional San Mateo County Fair a bit later in the year. It was spectacular, exciting, and very, very new. The inaugural event was held in one small building, but within that space, there was an enormous variety of productions. There was even a Segway “polo” game outside played by Silicon Valley luminaries such as Steve Wozinak, who had modified his Segway to handle the activity of the game.

As Maker Faire progressed, it grew to three days, hosted huge crowds, and had to fill the parking lot with tents to hold all the new ideas and creations. Dougherty developed educational components that were adopted for STEM programs in schools. Silicon Valley companies actively canvassed Maker Faires over the years, looking for ideas for startups and people to bring into their corporate labs. The ethos of making permeated VC firms, boardrooms, startups, schools, corporations, garages, kitchens, and workshops.

Dougherty expanded the organization with additional Maker Faires around the globe, including major ones in San Mateo, New York City, and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Sadly, his company Maker Media went bankrupt last year as a result of factors such as reduced corporate sponsorships, leading to the end of the fairs it operated, including the San Mateo original. It was a setback for maker culture, which has also recently been squeezed by a real-estate market that has priced some storefront “maker spaces” out of existence.

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However, the maker spirit continues—enabled by the Maker Faire’s strong brand and the connections people have made from attending prior Maker Faires, participating in internet groups, and sharing via YouTube videos and websites. Before the coronavirus crisis clobbered in-person events of all sorts, there were 60 smaller volunteer-led Maker Faires scheduled for the remainder of 2020, from Cleveland to Taipei, Taiwan. They license the Maker Fair name from Dougherty’s new company, Make Community.

It is this history that now critically comes into play with the coronavirus, for the spirit of hacking, making, and cooperative learning going on around the world is based on a straight-out-of-Maker Faire ethos.

Here is just some of what people have been doing:

At Chiari hospital in Brescia, Italy, valves were needed for ventilators, and the regular supplier could not get the parts from the manufacturer. A local newspaper editor teamed with FabLab founder Massimo Temporelli and a network of manufacturers and 3D startups to see if they could create a 3D printed valve. Christian Fracassi, the CEO of 3D-printing startup Isinnova, “delivered a 3D printer directly to the hospital” and redesigned and produced a valve in six hours—on-site, saving lives.

In Sudan, an emergency medicine registrar tweeted about a “little trick our EM residents devised” to get around the lack of oxygen sockets in hospitals, using stethoscope tubing. In the video he posted, the lower part and ear pieces are removed from a stethoscope, and the bottom tube is shown being connected to a hospital bedside or other oxygen source, while the ear pieces function as a splitter to route oxygen to two patients.

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Dr. Alain Gauthier, an anesthetist at the Perth and Smiths Falls District Hospital in Ontario, Canada, was inspired by watching YouTube videos created by two doctors from Detroit in 2006. His hack converted a single ventilator that works for one patient into a machine that can host nine patients. To do this effectively, Gauthier (who also has a PhD in diaphragmatic mechanics) paired patients who had similar lung size and capacity.

Texas doctor Curtis Merritt posted instructions for unfurling 3M’s 2200 Elite Allergen household air filter, putting it “between fabric for comfort” and using it to make about 60 masks. While he acknowledged that the material filters “97% of particles 3010 microns in size” and that COVID-19 is “60-140nm in size,” he wrote that it would “work better than the “#JustUseASock recommendation from the Center(s) for Disease Control (and Prevention).”

Hospital workers at Providence St. Joseph Health hospitals in Washington state have been making protective gear out of office supplies, using clear vinyl sheets to make face shields along with other materials such as marine-grade vinyl, industrial tape, foam, and elastic purchased from craft stores and Home Depot. Other efforts to make shields are happening worldwide as people ramp up production with 3D printers to print frames to hold office-supply acetate and accommodate eyeglasses.

The Deaconess Health System in Evansville, Indiana, has asked the public to sew face masks for healthcare workers. It’s posted a PDF of the pattern, instructions, and a sample video.

Montreal’s “Code Life Ventilator Challenge” hackathon awarded a CAD $200,000 prize “to design a low-cost, simple, easy-to-use, and easy-to-build ventilator that can serve COVID patients, in an emergency timeframe,” and plans to open source the winning designs so that they can be made freely, by everyone, all over the world.

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There are many other examples, such as Parma, Italy’s Maggiore Hospital using a 3D printer to modify scuba masks to connect to oxygen as a makeshift ventilator.

From breweries to tech giants

Inspired by these individual makers, corporations have started “making” as well, with breweries, distilleries, and perfumeries being repurposed to make hand sanitizer, and clothing designers such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Christian Siriano, Dov Charney, Brooks Brothers, and others are reopening factories and pivoting production to making masks, gowns, and other PPE. Apple is designing and producing face shields, and Intel is granting free access to its intellectual property to COVID-19 researchers and scientists.

For the first time in living memory, nearly the entire human race is going through the same immediate disaster at the same time. As we reel from statistics and graphs measuring humans as data points, and gasp for leadership and governance, we find ourselves with what we’ve always had in common: We’re human, we want to live, and to do so requires much more cooperation, coordination, and reliance on every other human than many of us have previously realized.

The situation of quarantine and staying at home has turned us from a dynamic society, in flux, constantly on the go, resettling the globe, and taking what we want (for the most part when we want it) to one that is concentrated and collected in our neighborhoods. We’re still creating a type of diaspora, but that resettlement is a return to where we began: from that of dynamic global motion to stasis. We’ve stopped.

One thing we do know is that much of the global human population is at risk, and that risk increases when we are close to each other, which, unfortunately, is what we need the most when we are vulnerable: each other. We need to help each other, and yet we are required to remain isolated from each other.


Related: This 12-year-old invented an ingenious solution to one of the biggest problems with masks

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To date, the internet has proven useful to us to connect and gather over distance. Never so much as now, when we are in the throes of a global pandemic, has it been so critical to our supply chain, our emotional health, and our well-being, to be able to connect, collaborate, and cooperate with others remotely, and—most importantly—safely. Around the world, the makers bringing innovative thinking to this disaster are making the most of the internet’s potential for good.

Ironically, one corporation inspired by Maker Faire has also found its way back home. Verity—like Google, an Alphabet company—is offering private COVID-19 testing at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds, the very same event center where Maker Faire stood for 13 years at around the same time of year. The San Mateo County Health Department has set up 300 beds, creating a makeshift hospital overflow in the location as well.

It is chilling to think of the huge crowds of people who used to stand shoulder to shoulder at Maker Faire. Now we stand 6 feet apart when we’re outside. But mostly we are inside, communicating with each other about our maker projects and sharing patterns, ideas, and productions over social media, YouTube, and the web.

Without Maker Faire, there might be less awareness and cohesion of what making is, and how to do it in this digital age. Now with the social networks and technology in place to spread the word, it’s bittersweet that the biggest Maker Faires such as the San Mateo original are over.

I for one am enormously grateful to Dale Dougherty, who resurrected the idea of the shop class and taught us all how to get our hands into things, to play, and to create. His vision is saving lives and helping us connect even as we must stay apart.


S. A. Applin, PhD, is an anthropologist whose research explores the domains of human agency, algorithms, AI, and automation in the context of social systems and sociability. You can find more at @anthropunk and PoSR.org.

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