Blue Mounds business makes protective face gear for medical personnel

Midwest Prototyping is an industry leader in 3D printing, rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing.
Steve Grundahl wearing a shield
Steve Grundahl
Photo by Patrick Stutz

The day after Midwest Prototyping founder Steve Grundahl made the news with the protective Badger Shields his company was assembling for University Hospital, he got a call from the Driftless Historium in Mount Horeb. The museum wants one of the face shields for its collection.

“That was probably the strangest feeling in all of this,” Grundahl said, at a time when things have never felt stranger. We all sense we’re living through history in the making as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, but for Grundahl the museum’s phone call turned an abstract idea into something tangible — which is exactly what he’s been doing for 20 years at Midwest Prototyping.

Full disclosure: I grew up with Steve and his brothers, Jeff and Jason. They’re good, hardworking guys who were raised on a dairy farm outside of Mount Horeb that Jason now runs. Jeff founded JG Development, now an award-winning national construction and remodeling company, back in 1990. I’ve always been impressed that Jason invested in the farm, and that both Steve and Jeff chose to build their businesses 5 miles down the road in Blue Mounds.

But it wasn’t until protective face wear became one of the most recognizable symbols in the world overnight — and I started reading about my small-town friend in national news outlets — that I realized I’ve never really known what Midwest Prototyping makes.

Ironically, it isn’t face shields.

Midwest Prototyping is an industry leader in 3D printing, rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing. Using seven distinct 3D printing technologies across 40 machines, the company produces prototype parts for clients including Boeing Co., Ford Motor Co., Harley-Davidson Inc., Trek Bicycle and General Motors Co. It’s making parts for the hospital ventilators General Motors is scrambling to build now, too.

But none of its cutting edge equipment is being used to make Badger Shields.

“I’ve been calling this a giant craft project,” says Steve Grundahl, laughing. His wife, their kids and a handful of socially distanced employees are literally stapling together locally sourced components Grundahl tracked down — foam from Madison, plastic from Cross Plains, elastic from Sheboygan Falls — in a massive effort to fill standing orders for multiple hospitals and Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services.

They started in the basement of Midwest Prototyping, then moved to a downtown Mount Horeb building that Grundahl bought in 2016 and Jeff’s company restored. The first floor will be a restaurant when the pandemic clears. For now, the building houses an assembly line pop-up shop.

All credit for the design goes to Lennon Rodgers of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Engineering’s Makerspace, Jesse Darley of Delve and Brian Ellison, Midwest Prototyping’s director of development. Darley initially thought Midwest Prototyping could put its 3D printing capabilities to work. But they all quickly determined 3D printing was overkill — too slow and expensive. So they came up with a method that could be easily replicated throughout the world, and they published the open-source design online.

They’re also supplying kits to Sub-Zero, Vortex and Plastic Ingenuity so those partners can use their own facilities and labor to help fill the demand for millions of face shields. Since April, between the four sites, they’ve hand-assembled 50,000 to 75,000 shields a week.

And that’s not all. Also in April, UW Makerspace, Delve and Midwest Prototyping team got orders from University Hospital to make positive air pressure respirators, or PAPR — which consist of a hooded mask and backpack respirator combination that medical providers can wear.

Meanwhile, Midwest Prototyping is considered an “essential” business — and it was already having a record year. Now Grundahl struggles to balance the safety of his family and staff against the demand for potentially lifesaving products and the importance of keeping his 45 employees on the payroll. “I’ve never made so many conflicted decisions in my life,” he says. It’s a lot more work with fewer employees and less time to do it. But it feels personal, he says.

The truth is we all have at-risk people to worry about. We’re all worried about our communities. Grundahl’s sister-in-law, Jason’s wife, is a nurse. None of us is immune.

“It’s not lost on me that I could be on a [hospital] table looking up at one of these shields,” he says.

Maggie Ginsberg is a monthly columnist and senior contributing writer for Madison Magazine.