Early last week, Lennon Rodgers, director of the Engineering Design Innovation Lab at University of Wisconsin-Madison, got an urgent email from the university’s hospital. Could his lab make 1,000 face shields to protect staff testing and treating Covid-19 patients? The hospital’s usual suppliers were out of stock, due to the spike in demand prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

After putting his kids to bed, Rodgers went to Home Depot and a local craft store and grabbed supplies, including transparent plastic and a couple of foam mannequin heads. Then he made a hasty prototype at the UW maker space by adapting a construction visor and presented it to his wife, an anesthesiologist. “I was really proud of it, but she put it on and said ‘This is way too heavy,'” Rodgers recalls.

Undeterred, Rodgers devised several lighter prototypes with two friends: Jesse Darley, a mechanical engineer at design firm Delve, and Brian Ellison, business development manager at manufacturer Midwest Prototyping. Rodgers’ wife provided more feedback, and talked the group through infection-control videos showing how to put on and remove face shields.

Last Thursday, the hospital approved the prototype. Rodgers posted the design online for others to use and the ad hoc collective began to ramp up production. They have since sent more than than 1,000 face shields to the UW Hospital. Ford has picked up the open source design, and expects to produce more than 75,000 this week at subsidiary Troy Design and Manufacturing in Plymouth, Michigan. The company plans to send the initial run to Detroit area hospitals.

Shortages of face masks, ventilators, and other medical equipment needed to care for Covid-19 patients and reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus have inspired engineers, makers, and hobbyists around the world. The Madison face shield, dubbed the Badger Shield, is one of the first to bloom into medically approved, mass-scale production.

“We’re filling a niche while the high-volume supply chains have broken down,” says Darley, who took the lead on design and authored the open source technical drawings picked up by Ford. If other manufacturers adopt the design, he adds, “I think we can ramp up production very quickly.”

pJesse Darley an engineer who worked on the face shield's open source design models a prototype at his home.p
Jesse Darley, an engineer who worked on the face shield’s open source design, models a prototype at his home.
Photograph: Jesse Darley

Medical staff wear face shields over face masks while treating patients to protect against flying respiratory droplets that can transmit coronavirus, such as from coughs and sneezes. Bob Scheuer, director of materials management at UW Health, says protective equipment of all kinds has become hard to find, but face shields are especially critical because staff now wear them routinely.

Scheuer notes that staff disinfect masks between patients and reuse them, but they have to be replaced periodically due to wear and tear. The hospital in Madison doesn’t yet have a rush of Covid-19 patients, but preventing coronavirus spreading to staff is crucial. “It’s a downward spiral if we can’t keep them safe,” he says. “So far these new shields are working well for us.”

‘Infection Control Approved’

Darley says engineers would typically huddle together over tools and materials to brainstorm on a new product, but social distancing prevented it on this project. He, Rodgers, and Ellison, who knew each other from design events in Madison, collaborated mostly over phone, FaceTime, text, and Google’s photo-sharing service. “It would have been much easier if we could have met in person,” Darley adds. They placed an order for overnight delivery of items from hardware supplier McMaster-Carr, which donated some materials.

The design work really came together, Darley says, after he contacted a hospital worker he knew from the local dog park and she brought him a face shield that he could measure and disassemble. To make more shields, it first was necessary to destroy one. “The biggest impression was how lightweight it was. It’s featherlight.”