As the national stockpile of personal protective equipment ran dry and manufacturers strained to fill demand during the pandemic, University of Arizona faculty and staff stepped up to help fill local needs.
Kasi Kiehlbaugh, director of the university’s Health Sciences Design Program, organized AZ Makers Fighting COVID-19, an online group of over 100 faculty, staff and health care professionals from across campus and Tucson to brainstorm and manufacture personal protective equipment, or PPE, from the tools and materials available to them.
Among the participants is Paulus Musters, laboratory manager for the School of Architecture in the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture.
“Before joining the group, most of us didn’t know each other,” says Musters, who teaches architecture students to work with various materials and processes. “But we put our heads together and said, ‘What are the major needs?’ They are face shields, respirators and intubation hoods.”
One of the simplest and fastest pieces of PPE to construct is the face shield, says Peter Jansen, assistant professor in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ School of Information, who researches artificial intelligence and language and teaches rapid prototyping skills.
Shields are plastic coverings that go over the face, usually worn along with a mask. They’re meant to block the largest droplets of saliva and mucus and prevent health care workers from touching their own faces. They can also help scarce N95 masks — which filter 95% of airborne particles — last longer.
Jansen, who’s also part of the online makers group, has focused his efforts on designing and manufacturing shields. “I saw 3D-printed face shields in the news,” he says. “But it takes about four hours to print just one shield. You would need thousands of printers running 24/7 for weeks to meet the needs of Pima County.”
“A laser cutter can cut plastic like butter in seconds. I wanted to come up with a laser-cut design rather than printed.”
When Jansen came up with a promising design that could be fabricated in just a minute, the online group collaborated to improve on it. Boris Reiss, assistant professor of public health and an expert in PPE, evaluated the prototype and, says Jansen, “he said it fogged up a bit because it sat too close to the face and would benefit from being more comfortable to be worn for eight-hour stretches. So, the rest of the AZ Makers group members jumped in and have been tweaking the design.”
One adjustment was suggested by Anna Montana Cirell, technology lead at the CATalyst Studios makerspace in the university’s Main Library, where the bulk of the shield production is taking place. A former fashion designer, she was able to find a way to make the mask fit while reducing fogging.
Kevin Woolridge, a science and math teacher at Blue Ridge High School in Lakeside, Arizona, and Navajo County Cooperative Extension Director Steve Gouker are already making and distributing several hundred of the face shields designed by the AZ Makers group at the 4-H fabrication laboratory in Pinetop-Lakeside. The shields are being distributed to Navajo County hospitals and doctors, who have given positive feedback and have requested more so they can distribute them more widely in rural areas.
In Pima County, the first 240 face shields using the all-laser-cut design were produced from an initial delivery of purchased material. With the design finalized and a larger supply of materials delivered, the group has moved into more intensive production.
CATalyst Studios has two laser cutters to do the face shield manufacturing, and Cirell and two student workers are overseeing the production of about 3,000 face shields to be immediately packaged and sent out for use, Kiehlbaugh says.
Face shields have already been distributed to Campus Health and other service units on campus, such as Housing and Residential Life, which requested shields to give custodial and maintenance staff added protection while cleaning student rooms and working around students and other staff members.
In addition to face shields, Musters also has designed an easily manufactured intubation hood that is placed over a patient to protect health care workers from infectious airborne particles while they are inserting a breathing tube.
David Lesser, president of the Xerocraft makerspace in downtown Tucson and a postdoctoral research associate at the Steward Observatory, is also building hoods, some of which are in use at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tucson. In addition, he is using a 3D printer to create a mold that he hopes will allow for the rapid production of one of the most complex pieces of PPE: N95-type respirators.
What the AZ Makers group can offer is only part of the solution, Jansen says. Hospitals and other organizations in Pima County and throughout the state still need more of everything.
“It’s hard to find materials, and even during normal times there’s typically a lag of six to 12 weeks between ordering material and receiving it,” Jansen says. “Pima County needs 130,000 face shields — which means, ideally, manufacturers should have started making them three months ago.”
Yet, everyone in the group is up for the challenge.
“The most encouraging thing,” Musters says, “is that the hospitals all 100% appreciate what we’re doing and need the equipment, and that’s what’s driving the group.”