On the job: Shielding Canada's front-line workers

Doug Braden standing in the middle of factory floor with hands on hips, wearing khaki overalls, green tshirt, face mask and gloves
SAIT graduate Doug Braden has been working an average of 17 hours a day since March 21, 2020. His part in fabricating face shields in response to the demand for PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic is critical for the safety of healthcare workers across Canada.

Doug Braden, a 2011 graduate of SAIT’s Mechanical Engineering Technology program, and his business partners Jeremy Hedges and Andrew Brumwell, are the owners of InkSmith, an education technology startup located in Kitchener, Ontario. Up until a few weeks ago, they worked closely with teachers to introduce K – 12 students to robotics, 3D printing and the principles of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math).

But with the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and face shields for healthcare workers reaching a critical point across Canada, InkSmith’s small team of seven staff began working on a solution. After fabricating and testing multiple prototypes, they came up with The Canadian Shield — a cost-effective, reusable face shield.

Braden met via telephone with LINK writer Nicole Brandt to share his experience for the first time since radically shifting InkSmith’s business from providing educational programming to fabricating 50,000 face shields a day for the healthcare industry.

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What is the usual process for creating face shields, and what makes your face shields different?

DB: We had to get a Medical Device Establishment Licence. Normally it would be a four-month process, but we got it done in 26 hours with the support of Health Canada and local professionals. We’ve also quickly learned about sanitation protocols and how things need to be prepared and packaged for the hospital setting.

Our face shields are reusable and can be sanitized with cleaners commonly found in hospitals. Where medical professionals would normally discard all of their PPE and put on new PPE between patients, they can wipe the face shield down in about 15 seconds, reassemble it, and then carry on with the next patient. Unlike other forms of PPE that would normally get thrown out after 10 minutes of use, these shields can be reused 10 to 14 times.

Do you see the company expanding production beyond face shields to other PPE?

DB: Within just over a week of purchasing a new computer-controlled die press, we found ourselves at full capacity for manufacturing face shields. I don’t think face shields will be the only form of PPE we will be creating for the medical field. We’ve been working with different levels of government and listening to what they want — they’re telling us what they need right now and what they will need soon!

It’s evident to us that the supply chain for these critical materials needs to be in Canada. We need to have a secure supply. If we could make sure everything we need for medical PPE is made here and can ship to people here, then we may avoid being impacted by similar global shortages in the future.

How many prototypes has InkSmith created?

DB:  We’re now on version 99 of the shield design. We used to joke about doing a weekly night redesign. We tend to tweak little things to make manufacturing a little easier. Even during a shift, we will make a change and then document it thoroughly.

A local doctor from the Kitchener-Waterloo Academy of Medicine, Dr. Neil Naik, did usability testing for us. He would take our face shields, test them in the ER or a nearby clinic, and come back with Sharpie notes all over them telling us where to move things or how to change them. Thanks to him and his colleagues, we got some really quick user feedback. We did probably 20 to 30 user trials over five days before we came up with a shield we were satisfied with mass-producing.

With more than 100 staff, how do you maintain physical distancing?

DB: The same doctor who did the user tests helped us develop a health and safety team. Every employee wears eye protection, a surgical mask, a face shield and steel-toed boots. We follow handwashing protocols, use paper towels to open doors, and have a UV light bath for our staff to use on their equipment at the end of each shift.

One of our biggest concerns was our original office space, which was an old post office building in downtown Kitchener. As per fire code, that space could hold more than 100 people but, to follow and maintain proper physical distancing, only 40 employees would have been allowed to work during each shift. In our new building, we have literally ten times the space to work in and can accommodate in excess of 300 people per shift. Our employees are the core of our business and are the reason we have achieved as much as we have. We are focused on doing everything we can to provide them with a safe and enjoyable work environment.

How many face shields do you manufacture in a day?

DB: Tens of thousands! It’s unreal to think about that. In mid-April, we had to disrupt our order protocol because there are 12 assisted living facilities in the region, and 11 of them currently have outbreaks. We had to divert small amounts from larger orders to help out these local facilities because the people working there literally don’t have any PPE. Some only have homemade masks. It’s pretty tough to think about it now, but when I delivered a box of shields the other day, the nurses were in tears the whole time.

When [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford came on the news to say that Ontario had one week of PPE left, it was motivation to work faster to make the shields. I’ve worked in oil and gas, aerospace, agriculture, food service — but I’ve never heard of a company doing what we have done. We went from doing hundreds of pre-fitted visors by hand every day to tens of thousands of shields each day. It’s insane.

I’m a little raw these days. It’s hard to reconcile the fantastic job the team has done so far with the hill we still have to climb to keep everybody safe.

Can you describe a typical day?

DB: Each day can be so different from the next. Just as an example, we got a building permit within 15 minutes. The city’s head of Building and Development came to our office in person to sign the necessary form so we could erect a 1,200-square-foot tent the same day.

Another day, I got a crane in to install a 16-tonne piece of equipment, which increased production 12-fold.

It’s been a surreal experience — from installing a piece of massive equipment to hiring, onboarding and training of new staff. We’ve had to be reactive.

What impact has this had on you?

DB: My brother has required medical treatment off and on for the past 20 years. When I was able to send the nurses on his unit boxes of shields — knowing they didn’t have anything — it was humbling to realize I could do something to help them in return for everything they've done for my brother.

We have a young man who has been in Canada for just over 30 days. Before coming to Canada from Lebanon, he was supporting his family by working 16-hours days at a machine shop with almost no pay. Before that, he was in Syria studying automation engineering. He says this is the easiest job he has had in a long time, and he is working a massive amount. To be able to see the impact we’ve had on his life already is cool.

Is there anything you would like others to know about you or your team?

DB: If you had told me five weeks ago that we would be increasing our staff by over a hundred people, that we would sign a lease for a 50,000-square-foot facility, and that we’d be creating tens of thousands of face shields for health-care workers across Canada, I wouldn’t have believed it.

We’ve come from very humble beginnings, and to grow so rapidly to help a massive number of people is unbelievable. It’s a pretty surreal thing to do this.

Doug Braden was also featured as one of SAIT's everyday heroes — the front-line alumni, instructors, employees and students using their skills to make a difference.