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Face-shield makers across the state are utilizing 3D printers, old classroom supplies

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Overhead projector (Dennis Sylvester Hurd) and face shield (University of Iowa Health Care)

Don’t call it a comeback: The overhead projector — a post-chalkboard and pre-SMART Board classroom technology, and staple of “you know you’re old when …” articles — is relevant once again as Iowans craft creative solutions to hospitals’ supply needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

N95 masks, the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) against the virus, must be manufactured in a medical-grade facility and are regulated by the FDA. But with the right supplies, anyone can make a face shield, which covers the face and mouth, can extend the life of an N95 mask and may also be useful for low-risk hospital procedure, from front desk interactions to blood draws.

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics put out an “urgent request” for donated face shields on March 22, either bought or homemade.

“These protective shields are extremely effective — especially for our staff who cannot always maintain a six-foot social distance when interacting with patients, visitors, and colleagues,” UIHC CEO Suresh Gunasekaran said in a statement. “There is a national shortage, and we need to secure an adequate supply for our needs now and in the future.”

Individuals, schools and businesses have heeded the call.

NewBoCo Executive Director Eric Engelmann worked with other local entrepreneurs to develop face-shield prototypes that can be made with or without a 3D printer. Within two weeks of UIHC’s call for face shields, NewBoCo had delivered more than 5,000 to hospitals across the state. (Engelmann told the Des Moines Register they have their own pilot making the deliveries.)

The UI College of Engineering developed their own face shield prototype, and fabricated more than 1,000 in the first week.

“It’s rudimentary,” James Ankrum, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and the project’s coordinator, said of their design, “but it allows us to keep costs down and get a useful device to the hospital.”

BeraTek Industries of Cedar Rapids has put their 3D printer to the task, and the Cedar Rapids Community School District has loaned NewBoCo its 13 3D printers. University of Northern Iowa faculty and students are 3D-printing face shields (based on the UI prototype) in UNI’s Additive Manufacturing Center in Cedar Falls.

In central Iowa, HartSmart Productions of Clive have allocated materials and printers to craft the head bands for face shields, which they pass on to NewBoCo. Members of Area515, a community maker space in Des Moines, are keeping the facility’s 3D printers running 24 hours a day with the hopes of providing around 800 face shields to rural hospitals and nursing homes.

Shelby Doyle, an assistant professor of architecture at Iowa State University and co-founder of the Computation and Construction Lab (CCL), and her eight student employees have stuck around ISU’s campus to manufacture face shields.

Armed with all 30 of the architecture department’s 3D printers, funded by donations from Alliant Energy (which is also handling the distribution of the face shields) and working on rotating shifts in order to practice social distancing, Doyle’s team said they hope to make at least 2,000 face shields, which can take up to three hours each to print, and additional time to assemble and sanitize.

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A main ingredient in the face shield prototypes is clear, flexible plastic, which can be purchased from some hardware or office supply stores. But with money for supplies running low, longtime teachers with hoarding tendencies are proving a rich source of the essential material.

“I’m kind of a pack rat. I never, ever throw anything away,” Dave Will, a math teacher at Waterloo’s Columbus High School, told CNN. “People around here make fun of me for that. I finally get to say I told you so.”

Will said he’s held onto 50 years’ worth of supplies and equipment, including more than a dozen rolls (or more than 1,000 feet) of overhead projector plastic, or acetate, ideal in the creation of face shields. Will said he’s kept the rolls “just in case.” A worthy “case” arrived in the form of an open call for donations from Anesa Kajtazovic, development director for the Allen Hospital Foundation in Waterloo, which was having trouble purchasing PPE.

Along with Will’s supply, the Waterloo Community School District dug up 20,000 sheets of projector plastic for local face-shield manufacturers to use.

“The response has been tremendous,” Kajtazovic told CNN. “It gets me teary-eyed. It’s just so kind of people.”

It’s not only the recipients of the face shields that have gotten something out of this collaborative, statewide project.

“The CCL student employees are making the best of a really challenging moment where a lot of us feel really helpless as we watch this pandemic unfurl,” Doyle told ISU’s news service. “Fabricating face shields is a small way for us to engage that’s within our capabilities.”

Doyle said her students are committed to working as long as they can to print and assemble face shields.

“It’s something really special,” UNI Additive Manufacturing Center Director Jerry Thiel said in a statement. “There’s been an outpouring at the university — everyone is chipping in. We’re hearing from everyone, ‘We want to be involved. We want to help.'”


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