In March, Rick Williams was running his 3-D printer at his Qualitex Inc. in Columbia City night and day and produced six plastic face masks to give for free to a nursing home. Now he’s left the 3-D printer alone and is filling orders for large manufacturers who expect to require returning workers to wear face coverings.

“We invested in Vacuum Thermoforming to keep up,” the southwest Fort Wayne resident said in a text message. “Can make 100’s of masks a day now. Made from ABS plastic and can be resanitized.”

A video on Qualitex’s Facebook page shows the Formtech machine with a black square sheet of plastic. Suddenly, the shapes of four masks emerge from under the sheet, which melts over the shapes like water.

Unlike the heavy beige plastic of the early masks, the new ones appear lighter and as thin as a Styrofoam cup. A hole in the front is covered by a white microfiber filter under a large cap with a circle of large holes for breathing.

Williams still isn’t looking to make money from the nonmedical masks, but he’d like to cover the cost of postage. Originally, he wanted to make sure people weren’t taking medical supplies needed by health care providers. Now that a multitude of sources are working with hospitals, he mostly gets 5 or6 email a day from individuals and companies requesting masks.

“I had an Indianapolis manufacturer ask me to make 1,000,” he said.

He estimates he’s made 600-700 and has parts to make 1,500-2,000 more. He has set up an account on Venmo, a mobile payment service owned by PayPal, to take donations and orders to cover the shipping.

“It is NOT Required to get a Mask, we will send regardless if you do or not,” he messaged. “... We have been shipping all over the country.”

Any extra money will be donated to charity, he said.

Cloth masks often will fog up a user’s safety goggles or glasses. Williams’ masks don’t, and they can be heated to be molded to fit the wearer’s face. Each comes with a 30-day supply of filters if users follow the instructions and change the filters once a day. His next worry is that he might not be able to find more elastic bands, so those who order later on might have to improvise there.

Qualitex is an essential business, providing parts for customers in the automotive and orthopedic industries, including Johnson & Johnson. However, Williams cut his staff by about half of his 20 employees to allow for social distancing.

His company’s application to the Small Business Administration for its Paycheck Protection Program was approved. Now he’s wondering how the program, and the $200,000 loan, believed by many to be totally forgivable if spent according to the rules, will affect his business.

“Everything I read, I thought there was no way we’d get the money,” he said. “...We just got under the window” before the $350 billion set aside from the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was depleted. Indiana businesses were approved for nearly $7.5 billion from the program, designed to help small businesses keep their employees on the payroll. Companies must use 75% of the money for payroll; the remaining can be used for mortgages, rent and utilities to keep operations going. Audits will be made of how the money was spent over an 8-week period.

Once he receives the money, possibly within the next two weeks, he’ll have to decide how best to bring back his employees after hearing problems faced by other businesses who got the money.

“What if your business hasn’t come back; you’re bringing people in off unemployment,” he said.

He plans to bring back his employees in pairs weekly, starting the first of May. He just wonders if the federal government will want the money back. And it will be gone, for payroll and approved debts. And if Indiana takes a rolling approach to returning to work, his customers might be coming back in stage, a process he could see going on all summer.

“I’m watching it very carefully,” he said. “If I use it.. and the business doesn’t come back, I’m on the hook for that money.”

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