The clamor for personal protective equipment keeps growing in these contagious times. While everyone with a sewing machine has produced a homemade mask, face shields--typically made of plastic and often worn as extra protection over masks or when masks are not available--are a tougher manufacturing challenge. Entrepreneurs are rushing in with their own versions designed for mass production at costs far below market prices, which range from $10 to several hundred dollars. The following two examples progressed from idea to final product in less than a week.

The baseball cap solution

The challenge was irresistible to Dan Brown, holder of nearly three dozen patents and creator of a product-development process that he teaches at Northwestern University. Brown, the founder of Loggerhead Tools, in Palos Park, Illinois, is best known as the inventor of the Bionic Wrench, the subject of an epic patent-infringement court battle with Sears. He wanted to create "a shield for the masses," targeting non-medical front-liners like people working delivery and fast-food jobs.

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Brown initially aimed for a price point of between 50 cents and $1, which meant eschewing straps or injection-molded parts that add cost. "The challenge was getting that shield to sit comfortably and securely," he says. The answer: baseball caps.

Almost everybody owns a baseball cap, Brown reasoned. So he designed a shield made from the kind of plastic used in soda bottles, with a slit cut into the top that fits over the brim of a cap. Brown experimented with many styles of cap to ensure a universal fit. 

Next, he enlisted one of Loggerhead's packaging suppliers that is proficient in blister-pack technology to create prototypes and do early runs. That company can produce half a million shields a week. If there's demand, says Brown, a vocal made-in-the-U.S.A.-advocate, it'll mean business for many domestic factories. The products, which he calls InstaShields, will soon be available direct-to-consumer and likely through retail.

Brown emphasizes that his shields are not medical grade and makes no claims about their effectiveness against Covid-19. Ideally, he says, they should be worn with facemasks as an additional layer of protection. And with mask supplies thin, he points out, "common sense says this is better than nothing."

In the interest of getting shields to the neediest people, Brown tweaked the business model while preparing to launch. The shields will be priced at $2, but for every one purchased he will donate one to a front-line worker or senior citizen, up to one million shields sold.

The open-source solution

Tucker Trotter didn't want to develop inexpensive face shields. He wanted them to be free. The CEO of Dimensional Innovations, a 300-employee creator of brand experiences based in Overland Park, Kansas, had the machining equipment in-house to make such a product. But he also envisioned putting the designs online for use by anyone with the right kind of plastic and some basic cutting tools.

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"There is a real shortage of plastic right now," Trotter says. "Letting production happen wherever people have some inventory rather than shipping supplies to one or two manufacturers is a great benefit."

Trotter's product criteria were the same as Brown's: simple, easy to manufacture, made of a single material. But all the designs he saw required multiple materials, such as elastic bands to hold the shields in place. So he reached out to his friend Randy Edge, CEO of InStore Design Display, a 35-employee North Kansas City, Missouri-based business that creates custom retail environments and has a facility with plastics.

Edge faced the same challenge as Brown: how to secure the shield to the head. After several iterations that didn't quite stay in place, InStore's designers came up with a two-piece unit comprising a flat shield that connects with a tab-and-slot locking mechanism to a headband made from the same plastic.

The pair quickly threw together a prototype, which Trotter brought for feedback to the University of Kansas Health System. Medical professionals there suggested making the shields longer and wider, and Edge had a new prototype the next day. A few more tweaks and by Thursday, March 26, just three days after they had started, they posted designs online. Over the weekend there were 3,500 downloads.

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Meanwhile, Trotter and another local CEO, Tyler Nottberg of the construction and engineering company U.S. Engineering, together put in $20,000 to produce--in just 24 hours--10,000 shields for donation to the University of Kansas Health Care System. Another business told Trotter it has enough plastic in inventory to produce 20,000, also for donation.

Trotter and Edge recognize someone could use the design to make a profit. But that doesn't bother them. "We put this out there because communities have a need," Edge says. "We hope that the individual or company will want to fill that need for their communities."