It’s no secret by now that medical supplies are in dangerously short supply as hospitals in the Northeast try to battle the coronavirus pandemic. Engineering students at the University at Albany are trying to pitch in by 3-D printing face shields.
The students are using PRUSA 3-D printers to make the face shields for hospital workers. A fine needle point draws layer after layer of hot plastic on a flat metal plate. Those layers build up to form the frame into which a UAlbany student will slide a see-though plastic shield.
Michael Leczinsky, Professor of Practice at UAlbany’s College of Emergency Preparedness Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, and Jonathan Muckell, a Professor of Practice in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at UAlbany, have assembled teams of student engineers to print, assemble, and deliver these shields to healthcare professionals.
Leczinsky says they dropped off 15 at Albany Medical Center on Monday, which were immediately put into rotation.
“And we’re looking at scaling our production so that not only Albany Medical Center but also Rensselaer County first responders and those across the state of New York as well as the country – we can scale the production so that we can deliver hundreds of these,” Leczinsky said.
Muckell says the shields are not designed to replace N-95 masks, but to be used in conjunction with them to extend their lifespan. The shield will stop saliva spray from getting into the eyes and onto the N-95 mask.
Depending on the design, one face shield can take up to two hours to print and assemble. The UAlbany design takes roughly 40 minutes. Muckell says two dozen students and 14 3D printers are working around the clock.
“We mobilized a bunch of student volunteers,” Muckell said. “And we kind of rallied equipment and resources together to try to make as big of an impact as we possibly can.”
One student leader is Ian Walter, a senior majoring in electrical and computer engineering.
Walter was dedicating most of his time to his senior capstone project: developing a satellite to be launched into low earth orbit. Now, he has turned his attention to printing face shields in his parents’ living room.
“It feels really nice to be able to, ideally, be creating stuff and actually helping the medical professionals who are kind of in the front line,” Walter said.
Due to social distancing, the roughly two dozen volunteers and their two professors are meeting via Zoom to coordinate and plan the project.
Walter says they are engineers, not medical professionals, so they are relying on approved schematics to make sure they meet hospital standards.
“The National Institutes of Health, NIH, actually set up a page for 3D printers or makers to submit designs for personal protective equipment,” Walter said. “And they’ll go through and actually test them and say whether or not this is suitable for real medical use in the United States.”
Once the 3D frame is printed, the clear part of the shield needs to be affixed. Walter says there was a simple solution to making the shield: Repurposing office supplies.
“These are just transparencies that you go and buy from Staples, or something,” Walter said.
“They’re standard sized. And the holes – I can actually grab one and show you - The holes are designed to fit a standard three-hole punch. We just took the transparencies and punched the three-hole punches and it just fits and snaps on.”
Walter handles the masks with rubber gloves, assembles them, and places them into Zip-Loc bags where they sit for three days – because it is estimated that the virus can live for 72 hours on plastic surfaces - before getting delivered to Albany Medical Center.
Before Walter started printing prototypes at home, student volunteers and faculty spent a week scouring global message boards trying to weed out which face shield designs were faulty and pick one that worked. Walter made five prototype masks as of Monday – but now that the design is approved he expects to print hundreds in the coming weeks.
There are now three 3D printers, all provided by UAlbany, in Walter’s home.
Walter says he may be one of the first students to print the face shields from home but he won’t be the last.
“Hopefully these won’t be the only 3D printers in the process,” Walter said. “We’ll have more at more people’s houses and have it be a whole community effort of everyone doing whatever we can to help the people who are trying to get us through this very strange time.”
Walter says being able to help during a national crisis is why he majored in engineering.
“It’s a way of thinking,” Walter said. “A way of problem-solving that not necessarily every other field uses and I love it. The problem-solving that people have been showing with designing these masks and working together as a community – that’s what engineering is all about.”
Professors Leczinsky and Muckell say with campuses deserted, students feel powerless. Walter worries that someone he loves will get the virus. He says if that happens, engineering the face shields is all he can do.
“That’s the most direct – Like, I can do something about that to help prevent that situation by making these and getting them into the hands of the people who desperately need them,” Walter said.
UAlbany is donating all protective face shields to Albany Medical Center and is fielding requests from emergency responders as well.
Those who want to get involved can reach out to UAlbany’s Office of Communications and Marketing at (518) 956-8150.