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From fine furniture to face shields: How this Cork business made a difference during lockdown



The Covid-19 pandemic caused many businesses across the island to close their doors but one Cork business responded to the lockdown with an innovative scheme to help the HSE.

Benchspace was originally set up in 2017 as an open access creative hub that provided local craftspeople with a venue to practice their crafts. When the lockdown forced the workshop to close, the business decided to harness the skills of its members to provide much-needed PPE equipment for the HSE.

This innovative decision saw Benchspace being nominated for the Irish Business Design Challenge 2020, a competition that was established to recognise and reward the resilience and innovation of Irish businesses in response to the pandemic. If your business found an innovative way to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, entries are still open until October 28.

To find out more about how Benchspace made the leap from making furniture to face shields, we spoke to its communications director, David Scannell.

Creating a shared space for craftspeople

The initial idea for Benchspace came about when two local furniture making lecturers noticed a worrying trend among students who had completed their courses.

Sean Breen, who teaches in Letterfrack, and Fergus Somers, who teaches in Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa, found that many of their most talented furniture making graduates were returning to their old jobs because they couldn’t afford to set up their own workshops.

“They thought that furniture making in Ireland was taking a hit and that there was a lot of talent going to waste,” explains David.

“They came up with the idea of Benchspace, which is an open access woodwork shop, with the idea being that they would put all the equipment in place and rent spaces for furniture makers for an extremely reasonable cost. It would act as an incubation hub for furniture makers. We then started doing classes because we thought it was a community of people who would be interested in getting involved in woodworking.”

Benchspace set up a co-working space in Cork City and quickly found a community of start-up furniture makers who wanted to avail of the service. It later expanded its remit to take in jewellery makers and people who were working in digital crafts like 3D printing and laser cutting.

Responding to the Covid-19 crisis

When lockdown hit, the creative hub was forced to close its doors. However, with the PPE shortage threatening to impact on the HSE’s ability to safely provide healthcare, the business decided that it could use its 3D printers to help.

“So, we got four or five people together and said let’s see if we can print some of these shields,” says David.

“Then we put a call out to our members who might have 3D printers at home and the call out went a little further than our members. We ended up with almost 250 people printing and about 100 support staff!”

With an overwhelming response to their appeal, they began producing this vital equipment to help alleviate the severe shortage that was affecting the HSE at the time.

“We started making them and a couple of other organisations came on board. Blood Bikes South and Southern 4x4 Response started picking up the shields from people’s houses when they’d printed them. Our whole thing was that there was a massive shortage out there and if we print them, people will want them.

“We funded the whole thing by a Go Fund It campaign and we gave them to the HSE and anyone who needed them for free. We distributed 52,000 face shields.”

The campaign was also embraced by the Defence Forces, who came on board and helped with packaging and distribution.

“We engaged with the HSE and they took about 80pc of the face shields off us and then we set up an email address and said ‘Look, if you need face shields, just email us.’”

Benchspace set up an online chat room for the makers to discuss production and provide peer support for anyone producing the face shields.

“It all flowed brilliantly, everyone knew that they were volunteering, everyone jumped in and helped. If you were looking for an example of a community effort, that was it. Everyone helped out everyone else.”

The fantastic initiative provided the HSE with this much-needed PPE until manufacturers were able to meet the high demand for face masks. It was a testament to the difference that local communities can make when they pool their resources and embrace innovation during a time of national crisis.

Benchspace has since reopened its doors, its makers have returned to work in the co-making space and classes have started up again, albeit with reduced numbers to meet social distancing guidelines. There are plans to move to a larger premises and to expand their classes beyond woodwork into a range of other crafts.

“We’ve expanded,” adds David. “We have a couple of jewellery makers there now, and the idea was always to expand into a space that incorporates all types of making – digital, ceramics, woodwork, metalwork – so that it would be a one-stop shop for making.”

They are also working with Cork City Council on the parklet project. This initiative involves converting car parking spaces into attractive seating areas that use natural materials and plants to create green spaces in urban settings that the local people can use and enjoy.

Enter your business in the Irish Business Design Challenge

If your business found an innovative way to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, you can now enter it into the Irish Business Design Challenge and potentially win funding of over €50,000.

The Irish Business Design Challenge is open to three categories: micro (1 - 10 employees), small (11 - 50 employees) and medium-sized (51 - 250 employees) Irish businesses. There is an overall prize fund in excess of €50,000, with a €15,000 first prize for the winner of each category and €2,000 for the runner-up in each category.

The Irish Business Design Challenge is an initiative of the Design and Crafts Council Ireland and is supported by the Local Enterprise Offices and Enterprise Ireland. Entries close on October 28, 2020. 

Full details are available online and entries can be made through the IBDC website.