On April 1, Justin Sonderagger, an ER doctor at Renown, posted the following request on Facebook: “We need light gowns. If you know how to sew or want to [donate.]”

Immediately, friends responded, offering to sew, buy fabric, and—in a gesture that would eventually lead to a 10,000-gown goal announced today—to mobilize UNR makerspaces.

“I have equipment that will cut roll material in mass. Hundreds/hour,” posted Jeff Erickson, Assistant Chair of the Sculpture Department at UNR, referring to the capabilities of the Zund G3, a precision CNC laser cutter that can cut “any pattern on any fabric by the bolt.”

Watch the Zund G3 precision CNC laser cutter in action


Located in the Fabrication Lab, or “Fab Lab” at UNR, which is overseen by Erickson, the Zund is normally used as a piece of support technology for the art department to cut shapes for art pieces, installations, or life-sized silhouettes for student projects. Making the switch from form to function—from visual art to manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE)—requires only a simple software change, but demands a certain level of built-in community and coordinated effort.

Nevada has turned to makerspaces to fill the gap for lower-tech items that the federal government cannot, or will not, provide.
Like other states that come up short in what are known as the “4 S’s” of disaster planning—stuff, space, staff, and systems—Nevada has turned to makerspaces to fill the gap for lower-tech items that the federal government cannot, or will not, provide. It’s a trend seen all over the world as universities and art spaces close down, leaving high-skilled makers with the time and the tech needed to assist their communities by designing and sharing PPE prototypes online and printing and sewing them locally.

“At that point [when Sonderagger posted], we were moving from an in-person campus to a remote operation, and I wanted to keep my employees working with meaningful work,” Erickson explained over the phone.

Nicole Miller wears a face shield. Courtesy Fabrication Lab at UNR.

In addition to staying in touch with a small network of volunteers for mask production, Erickson was able to keep Fab Lab Manager Nicole Miller in the facility. 

“[Erickson] asked me, ‘Do you think we could do this? Do you think we could move things around, change the way we do things to use the tools of the fabrication lab for PPE?’” Miller said in a recent phone call. “I’d already been thinking about it. I had seen other makerspaces, and I had seen on Instagram how people were sewing masks. I went to Renown’s website, where they posted a link to their preferred PPE fabric mask pattern.” 

The Renown-sanctioned mask pattern is available online. Image: Courtesy of Renown.

After printing the pattern, Miller converted the shape into a vector and multiplied it into a large file that allowed her to cut high-volume batches on the Zund. She assembled mask kits for volunteers to put together, which they sewed in their own time and left on their porches for pickup.

Within days, two other facilities across campus had joined the effort—the Innevation Center (led by Daniel Smith) and the DeLaMare Library (led by Nick Crowl)—printing inexpensive visor bands for face shield protection and manufacturing “Renown-sanctioned” masks.

UNR’s Fab Lab distributed mask-making kits to volunteers. Photo: Courtesy Fabrication Lab at UNR.

“The critical component of [Renown-sanctioned masks] is that they are actually three-ply, and the inner layer is a Pellon 910 sew-in interfacing,” explained Amber Maraccini, Renown Director of Service Excellence, over a group phone call. “And what is really really important about that interfacing is that—one: it is not fusible, meaning it’s not going to melt at a high temperature, and two: it’s been recommended as a best practice to add a layer of filtration. And so those Renown-sanctioned masks are able to be worn by themselves without an additional mask underneath.”

The face shield pattern, which has been approved by the National Institute of Health’s COVID-19 Supply Chain Response, was developed and posted online in mid-March by Erik Cederberg, a Swedish engineer and founder of Stockholm Makerspace. It can be downloaded in three free files compatible with international standards for 3D clinical printing.

Face shield clips are 3D printed at UNR. Photo: Courtesy Fabrication Lab at UNR.

So far, Renown has received donations totaling 30,000 individual PPE items, including 5,500 masks crafted by the larger community. It’s a big number, but still considered a shortage for hospital worker and visitor protection, even if Nevada has tentatively cleared its projected peak this week.

Next steps: A new collaboration & 10,000 gowns

Today, Renown and UNR announced plans to expand its collaboration, setting their sights on isolation gown production. In addition to the Fab Lab and the use of its Zund cutter, the partnership will now also include two local businesses—Printing Services of Nevada and Miller’s Jackets, both of which will take over the printing and sewing components of the operation and pay their own employees.  

“We’ve cut about 150 gowns worth of material within the first week of using their [Zund] machine,” said Maraccini. “We’re just collectively trying to partner with the community with the goal of creating 10,000 gowns. But it’s not like one person would be able to source that whole supply, so we’re just working cumulatively to reach that goal.”

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Whether the end goal is art or medical design, tech plays a role in helping us shift into new conceptual and physical paradigms. And it can be good to know these shifts happen quickly when they need to. But for all the advanced equipment, tools are—according to Erickson—only as good as the makers behind them.

“It’s really how people apply their creativity to the tools,” he said. “Just the same as you would in the sculpture studio. You have a table saw and a miter saw, band saw, welders. People utilize those tools traditionally for art making. And this now, this is just an extension of what we do with digital fabrication tools.”

Posted by Josie Glassberg

Looking at art is Josie’s favorite thing to do, followed closely by writing about it. After attending St. Olaf College for printmaking and exhibiting her own work for several years, Josie began writing for different publications and has only looked back, like, twice. More at www.josieglassberg.com.