The makerspace becomes the maker

COVID-19 the impetus for Calgary maker community to dive into PPE

By David Quinn

Calgary makerspace Fuse33 was faced with a number of difficult decisions in the last year while trying to keep their proverbial head above water. Do they shut down completely? Do they refresh their business model? Do they just keep going and hope for the best?

When the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Fuse33 stepped up to the challenge with typical entrepreneurial and Prairie gusto.

Makerspace… what’s that?

Makerspaces are usually places for people with shared interests – especially in computing, technology, and ‘making’ – to gather to work on projects while sharing ideas, equipment, and knowledge. In the case of Fuse 33, they shifted their makerspace into the role of maker of protective equipment for the local market.

Shannon Hoover, Founder and Managing Director of Fuse 33 says the company’s greatest advantage so far has been its agility. 

“We switched paths and started manufacturing, and it’s been a kind of recovery strategy for us,” says Hoover. “We’re actually doing more fabrication work ourselves, instead of just being a space for our maker community to do their manufacturing.”

Shifting gears

“We originally started Fuse33 with the intention of having people come in and build stuff, and we’d offer training courses for the equipment and techniques,” Hoover explains. “But we discovered it wasn’t quite enough, so in addition to the workshops and helping people use the space, we needed to get into fabrication work.”

“We actually go out into the community and seek out projects that might seem a bit ‘weird’, but we’re really good at doing these sorts of things,” says Hoover.

Fuse33 has manufactured five-foot-tall pieces of fruit for grocery store openings, sheds and fences for businesses and homeowners, and even the simple but extremely useful (especially in the time of COVID-19) items like aluminum foot pulls for doors, and pocket-sized metal devices for a keychain that can be used to pull open doors or push elevator buttons. 

With challenge comes opportunity

In terms of COVID-19-related protective gear, the community at Fuse33 has come together and produced two varieties: cloth face coverings and plastic face shields.

Hoover says the biggest PPE project was an order for 15,000 face shields for Alberta Health Services, the province-wide integrated health system.

“The order wasn’t very many when you think about the sheer size of the health care system, but they were looking to add to the overall reserves of PPE and work with local companies to ensure they had a robust supply system,” says Hoover. “They really wanted to build relationships and do some test projects with manufacturers here.”

Pandemic partnerships

Despite securing the order from the health system, Hoover says that there were – and still are – big barriers to participating in the health sector for smaller players.

“We didn’t – and couldn’t – get a medical device license from the government as quickly as we needed, so we ended up partnering with a company who already is a Class 1 Medical Device License holder,” says Hoover.

“We delivered all our shield products to them, and they did the testing and inspections. If you bought the product through them, you were getting a certified medical device, but if you bought it directly from us, it was only a personal use device without a medical certification,” Hoover explains.

“The biggest thing for us was to make sure that were ticking all the boxes from a regulation perspective,” explains Hoover. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it would sure be nice if the environment was friendlier to the smaller local producers and products.”

“I think what we’ve all discovered during this time is that the local supply chains and local manufacturers are very useful, and we can help mitigate the risks of being at the mercy of the big producers abroad,” Hoover says.