Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Lockdown with a 3D printer

What does a maker and small business owner do during lockdown? For one Sheffield maker, the answers include making PPE, pigeons – and new friends.

Patrick murphy pigeons

Pigeons designed by Patrick Murphy and 3D printed by Mark Wrigley.

I run a small business selling kits to build a 3D printed telescope with a digital camera, the PiKon.

The project started at the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind six years ago. I wanted to show creative people what they could do with new technologies like 3D printing and the low-cost Raspberry Pi computer with camera. After a talk in the Spiegeltent outside John Lewis, things snowballed and PiKon hit the headlines. With crowdfunding and an online shop, I have now shipped more than 300 PiKon kits all over the world. A community of makers send me photographs of their builds and the astronomy images they have captured.

When the first lockdown was looming in March, I had to make some quick decisions. I live alone in Sheffield and I didn’t fancy sitting it out in solitary confinement. On the other hand, I wanted to keep the business running. As it is entirely mail order, I just needed somewhere to work and a nearby post office. Without too much hesitation, I gathered up some clothes, PiKon stock and a 3D printer and headed for lockdown at my partner’s house in Otley, north Leeds.

But my first task at the new PiKon HQ wasn’t making telescope kits. I’m a member of Otley Maker Space, which is well-equipped for making things and hosting events like repaircafes. The members are a great cohort of people who, when not in the maker space, keep in contact by Slack. That week in late March, Slack came alive with makers wondering how to make personal protective equipment (PPE).

Pi Kon 3d printed telescope

A PiKon 3D-printed telescope.

People worldwide were sharing free designs and soon our maker space members set to it, working from home with Slack and the occasional video team meeting. 3D printers were dedicated to making the headbands for face visors. Each plastic headband held an A4 acrylic sheet with holes punched in it using a standard four-hole punch.

At first, the headbands took about an hour to print. Much experimentation and fiddling was required to get a faster output. We designed stacks of headbands so that the printer could be left working through the night. Trial and error ruled. Sometimes a pile of plastic spaghetti would be waiting on the printer bed in the morning where a stack of headbands should’ve been.

Otley Maker Space succeeded in donating over 2,000 face visors, 200 sets of scrubs and many, many face coverings for local health and social care workers and businesses. They raised over £5,000 in donations to pay for the materials. Of course, being a Sheffield lad, I made sure we helped out with the demand for PPE in South Yorkshire, supplying hospitals in Barnsley and Sheffield, as well as doctors and care workers.

They say ‘as one door closes, another one opens’. That’s certainly true in Sheffield if you have a good social (media) network. As demand for PPE waned over the summer months I got an unusual request: could I print pigeons?

Patrick Murphy is an artist, designer and curator who ran Sheffield Design Week some years ago. In 2012, Patrick was commissioned to create ‘Belonging’ for the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, an installation involving brightly-coloured plastic pigeons. In lockdown, Patrick was new to 3D printing and had been working with modeling programmes like Blender and Tinkercad to produce 3D printing files of stylised (but very realistic) pigeons. He got in touch because he wanted to test his files. We swapped messages and he asked if I’d be interested in printing them for him.

This time, instead of waking up to a stack of face visors, I came round to find a rather large plastic pigeon sitting on the 3D printer bed. Patrick’s 3D files were great to print and I learned a little more about how to 3D-print smooth shapes. He went on to get his own printer and I went back to posting PiKons.

So it’s been an interesting lockdown. The 3D printer has enabled some interesting projects, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned is the power of a good network. I’m not sure what the ‘new normal’ will be like, but 3D printing and my Sheffield network will continue to be part of mine.

More Arts & Culture

More Arts & Culture