The facts are stark. Health care professionals across the country are either in desperate need of personal protective equipment or they soon will be as they race to fight COVID-19.
Some areas, such as New York City and New Orleans, have resorted to using ponchos from a ballpark as gowns and are reusing face masks again and again to protect their airways from the deadly virus.
The lack of proper masks, gowns and face shields are putting them, and others, at risk as they work to fight the coronavirus.
A St. Xavier High School teacher is using the school’s equipment to help alleviate that burden by producing parts for much-needed face shields.
Dr. Dan McCue, an engineering and physics teacher at St. Xavier, was alerted to an effort by the University of Louisville’s J. B. Speed School of Engineering to 3-D print face shields.
“I think a lot of people feel helpless right now. This was just the perfect fit. I live near school, have access to a 3-D printer and know how to work it. It seemed like a no-brainer to me; it was an easy way to do something fairly useful,” he said.
Ed Tackett, the director of workforce development at the Speed School, sent McCue the digital files and he got to work right away.
The group at UofL is manufacturing clear plastic face shields. McCue is printing two plastic pieces: one that is curved that fits near the chin and helps the clear plastic hold its curve and a small clip that helps hold a portion of the shield in place.
3-D printing, at its most basic, is like a “computerized hot glue gun,” McCue explained. The printer melts a thin strand of plastic, or filament, and prints it into an object layer by layer.
In the last two weeks, he’s printed about 200 of each part. One of each piece is used for one mask.
“I’m limited by how many of those little pieces can fit on a printer,” he said.
For one part, he said, he can only fit about 10 at a time. With all five MakerBot printers running, he can print about 50 at once. It takes about six hours to get through a whole batch.
But, Tackett said, no matter the number produced, all the small efforts add up.
“Community members who have a small 3-D printer may think that it’s not that big of help if they can only produce one piece per day. I have to remind them that every face shield we make can potentially save the life of a health care worker,” he said.
McCue said collaborating with UofL to produce the PPEs is exactly what he tries to teach his students each day.
“Hopefully we teach these guys how to solve problems, how to look at the world around them and to make it a better place, to reach out to others in need,” McCue said.
Tackett said efforts by community members, including St. Xavier, is “awe-inspiring.”
“To me, I like seeing the community engagement. I like seeing a community that actually cares. It’s real easy for people to look at this pandemic and sit back and not do anything. Morally, it’s the right thing to get involved,” he said.
In about a month’s time, Tackett has transformed the engineering garage at 1940 Arthur Street into a clean manufacturing facility. Products that come in are cleaned, assembled, packaged and delivered.
Tackett has a team of graduate and undergraduate students working on the project from design, pre-production and assembly.
They have assembled about 4,000 face shields since the effort began about three weeks ago. Most products are being used locally in Kentucky. Some have been sent to New York and New Orleans.
Still, the need grows. Tackett said he has about 27,000 in outstanding orders. And, other life-saving medical items are needed. Engineering students are at work on plans for internasal swabs, ventilators and valves and connectors for ventilators.
“I want to produce these until they are not needed anymore. All these things are very difficult to get,” he said.
Frank Espinosa, principal of St. Xavier, applauded McCue’s efforts and said all members of the St. Xavier family “have a responsibility to contribute to the greater community.”
“We are taking equipment we have here, knowledge of individuals who work here and are able to take that and apply, create and contribute. It’s an example of how we respond to the needs of the community, whether locally or globally” he said.
Utilizing technology for the greater good is not only appropriate but “what we are called to do,” Espinosa said.
“It’s our mission. It’s who we are. It’s one of the hallmarks of Xaverian education,” he said.
Espinosa said school staff would also collect any unused gloves the school had and donate those as well. Gloves are used in the school’s chemistry labs, sports medicine department, nurses office and other areas.
McCue said he will continue to print the pieces in between conducting online lectures for his students.
“I’m going to keep going until they tell me to stop. Ideally, we don’t run out of filament. We’ll keep making this part until they tell me to make a different one. And, we’ll make a different one until they tell us we’re done,” he said.
The school received an anonymous donation of $5,000 from a school board member to fund materials.
Individuals, schools or businesses that have a 3-D printer and wish to take part in UofL’s effort may contact Emily Villescas at firstname.lastname@example.org.