Shielding Those On The COVID-19 Front Line: Cape Codders With 3D Printers Enlisted To Create Safety Equipment

By: Tim Wood

Topics: COVID-19

Monomoy Middle School STEM teacher Matthew Barnes checks out a 3D printer making visors for face shields. COURTESY PHOTO

More than 40 Cape Codders are helping front-line emergency and healthcare workers by creating face shields with their 3D printers.

Nearly 2,000 of the shields have been made and distributed to Cape Cod Healthcare, local first responders and other healthcare workers. The shields, consisting of a plastic visor and a sheet of clear plastic that covers the face, is one part of the personal protective equipment worn by nurses and others treating COVID-19 patients. It helps cover the eyes and face and acts as a supplement to face masks worn over the mouth and nose.

The effort is being coordinated by the Cape Cod Makers, a nonprofit group of hobbyists who run the Launchpad, a makerspace at the Harwich Cultural Center. Member Mike Looney, director of career and technical education at the Mashpee schools, was contacted by a co-worker who had a relative working at Cape Cod Hospital to ask if he could use the school's 3D printers to help with protective gear. After reviewing information online, Looney decided to look into making face shields. He reached out to a friend off Cape who was making them, and enlisted his fellow makers to see if there was a realistic way to scale up production.

Robert Wilson, a fellow maker and retired mechanical engineer, took a design Cape Cod Healthcare had been looking at and tweaked it so that it used less plastic and printed faster. Looney credited Wilson with adapting the design of the visor—the part made by the 3D printer—so that the plastic sheet that covers the face could be easily fastened and replaced using polyethylene transparency sheets and a standard three-hole punch. “The three-hole punch design was a game changer,” he said.

Once ubiquitous in schools and used with overhead projectors, the digital age has made transparency sheets somewhat redundant. It turns out that most schools have a lot of them sitting around in boxes. Cape schools have donated more than 3,000, Looney said.

“Everyone looked in their closets and their classrooms and gathered them,” he said in a telephone interview from his Centerville home.

After approving a prototype, Cape Cod Healthcare asked for 10,000 face shields.

“My jaw hit the floor,” Looney said. It was “an incredible number,” considering it takes 90 minutes to print a visor. But after the Makers issued a “COVID-19 Call to Action” and schools, businesses and residents with 3D printers began responding, he began to think the goal was attainable.

“It has really taken off. People are home, and if they have a 3D printer, they know they can be involved. It's just been an incredible community effort,” he said. Jesse Craig, treasurer of the Makers group, said there are more than 40 volunteers working on the project, including schools, businesses and individuals.

Matthew Barnes, STEM teacher at Monomoy Regional Middle School, learned about the project when the school was tagged in a Facebook post. The school has nine 3D printers, and after getting permission from Principal Mark Wilson to enter the building on Crowell Road in Chatham—it's closed to all but essential staff—he began programming the machines last Wednesday.

“This has ramped up very quickly,” he said. To speed production, the printers are making half visors, which he then glues together. He sent out the first 20 full units Sunday, and on Monday was about to make about 25 more.

“It's a pretty good design, in that they've tried to make it use as little plastic as possible,” he said.

“Community support has been very good, too,” Barnes added. Administrative Assistant Roberta Simmons dug out a couple of boxes of overhead projections sheets, and several parents contributed plastic filament that is fed into the printer to create the visors.

Looney said the majority of Cape school systems are participating; he brought home the Mashpee school district's three 3D printers and has them running 24 hours a day. He's also serving as something of a clearing house. He and another maker pick up the plastic visors and take them back to his house, where his daughter Grace, a freshman nursing student at Westfield State University, helps assemble them by adding weather stripping to make the shields more comfortable and non-latex rubber bands to hold them in place.

Harwich resident Richard Gifford, who teaches in Provincetown, borrowed his district's 3D printer and recently picked up one from Chatham Elementary School that wasn't being used. So far he's made about 30 visors using the Makers' design, which his son Jack tweaked to speed production and make them a bit more comfortable. His face shields have so far gone to first responders in Provincetown and Barnstable, and to some nurses he knows. On Monday he received a request from the Harwich Fire Department for some face shields.

“If you just watch the news you can feel pretty powerless,” said Gifford. “This is something I know goes directly into people's hands and is being used immediately. This is one area I can help.”

The project allows people like him to flex his “nerd skills,” said Barnes.

“It's a good use of something that's just sitting there doing nothing,” he said. “It's definitely worthwhile. I know a lot of folks who work in jobs where they need this gear. If you can do it, why not?”

Looney said Cape Cod Healthcare recently notified him that a pending shipment of supplies would help meet the need for face shields, cutting the 10,000 order to 5,000.

“At this point in time, I think that's realistic,” he said. “When it all started I thought 1,000 was a far reach.” Others are also requesting face shields. He said a Plymouth resident whose wife and sister work at an off-Cape hospital drove down to pick up two face shields. He's even heard from funeral homes.

This is by far the biggest project the Makers have taken on, said Craig.

“We're enjoying it, it's keeping us very busy in this otherwise kind of boring time,” he said. “We're just going to keep printing until the hospital tells us they don't need them anymore. Then we will ask if anybody else needs them.”

To help out, contact the Cape Cod Makers at info@capecodmakers.org. Instructions and files to make the visors are available at capecodmakers.org/covid.