Makerspaces in a Time of Pandemic

School Districts Pump Out Medical Gear with 3D Printers

Calling all 3D printers! That's the word all over the country as makerspaces run by school districts have begun churning out essential medical gear for area healthcare workers.

Earlier this week the state of Tennessee announced that public colleges and universities would use their 3D printers to produce face shields for healthcare workers to supplement the protection provided by surgical masks. After three days of around-the-clock effort, 1,500 face shields had been produced. And more are coming.

Calling all 3D printers! That's the word all over the country as makerspaces run by school districts have begun churning out essential medical gear for area healthcare workers.Calling all 3D printers! That's the word all over the country as makerspaces run by school districts have begun churning out essential medical gear for area healthcare workers.

Healthcareworkers wearing 3D-printed face shields. Source: S. Jean Chai

Contributing to that effort were the 3D printers from Hamilton County Schools. Although the schools have been closed in response to coronavirus, according to local reporting, volunteers gathered almost a hundred 3D printers from the district and took over operations at STEM School Chattanooga, a science-focused high school located on Chattanooga State Community College's campus.

The face shields have three parts: a 3D-printed shield frame, an acetate face shield and an elastic band. Each unit is being distributed with 20 shield frames, to allow medical workers to replace their shields after each patient. The shields take about four hours to print, and then they're assembled. They cost less than a dollar to produce, and local donors have lined up to fund the materials needed.

Now Tennessee is trying to figure out how to produce N95 respirators. That challenge has been more problematic because project leaders haven't found a viable filter material safe enough for medical work. Several prototypes have been created and tested by hospital executives in the area, but none has worked yet.

Similar 3D printing efforts are going on with volunteers at the Rolla Public School System in Missouri, Cohasset Public Schools in Massachusetts and California's Ventura Unified School District, many of which have put a call out to their communities to get their hands on additional printers.

Volunteers at Charlotte Latin School in North Carolina, which has moved to remote learning, is running a GoFund Me campaign to cover the costs of printing face shields for its area nurses and doctors. As of today, the school has raised $69,622 of the $75,000 goal. That much money would be enough to create 10,000 face shields, the campaign reported.

The initiative was organized by local doctors with children attending the school and helped by a volunteer team of maker, engineering and project management experts.

Both the school and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte are already running their 3D printers 24 hours a day, to produce the face shield components. The money is intended to be used for purchase of "PLA and PTEG filaments, elastic and sanitizing supplies," the campaign noted. "Once the components have been printed and checked for quality control, our team of volunteers will assemble the face shields by hand, sanitize the finished product, and prep them for delivery."

Many of the shields have already been donated to area healthcare workers. One doctor who leads an emergency room team expressed her thanks on the campaign webpage. "I am rationing [the face shields] between 4 hospital ERs now," wrote Gloria Tsan an MD with the Mid-Atlantic Emergency Medical Associates. "I am giving [them] to ER doctors first because we are the ones doing intubations with highest risk and we just don't know which respiratory failures have COVID, so we are treating all these patients as such... When I showed up to my shift with those 10 shields, the look of relief on the ER docs' faces were wonderful. They also felt much more comfortable intubating with the shields. Right now, we are bleaching down and sharing the little that we have and keeping it with our Emergency Airway Kits and it is still making a huge difference. My ultimate goal is for every ER doctor, ER [advanced practice provider], ER nurse and ER radiology and EKG tech to have their own shield that they can clean, keep and feel safe and protected, so we focus on the task at hand, and not worry about protection."

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