SUNY New Paltz 3D printing lab is making face shields for COVID-19 frontline workers

Rachel Eisgruber, an intern working in the Hudson Valley Additive Manufacturing Center at SUNY New Paltz and a senior mechanical engineering major from Highland. (Provided)

Recently profiled here for its project helping Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County to prevent the spread of the spotted lanternfly by making life-sized acrylic models of the insects, the Hudson Valley Additive Manufacturing Center (HVAMC) at SUNY New Paltz now finds itself with an even more dangerous bug on its hands: the novel coronavirus. This time it’s not the organism itself that’s being simulated with the help of 3D printers, but protective face shields for healthcare workers.

In less than a week of frantic activity, 340 of them had already been manufactured and delivered, mainly to Ulster County’s new COVID-19 testing center at the Tech City site in the town of Ulster.

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“It became very clear about a week ago that there was a dramatic shortage of personal protective equipment, beginning with hospitals and then first responders,” said HVAMC director Daniel Freedman last week. “They were all trying to order more, but everybody was sold out.”

Freedman found himself getting calls from the likes of deputy county executive John Milgrim, Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation president Mike Oates, and Cornerstone Family Healthcare chief of staff Mike Limperopulos. They wanted to know whether HVAMC could lend a hand — and an array of printers — to fabricate plastic face shields. Currently in short supply, these face shields are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for use in coronavirus patient contact situations. Paired with surgical masks, face shields keep aerosol droplets away from the face when N95 respirator masks are not available.

Research into how Europe has been coping with the COVID-19 outbreak revealed that plans for 3D-printed components for a makeshift face shield had been made available online by inventors in the Czech Republic. Ingeniously, the design repurposed old eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch transparency films of the type formerly used for laser printers, copiers and overhead projectors. The HVAMC team — which includes Kat Wilson, Aaron Nelson and intern Rachel Eisgruber as well as Freedman — was able to obtain donations of an ample stock of the films in short order. “The invention of PowerPoint and smartboards kind of made them obsolete,” Freedman explained. “Pretty much every K-to-16 educator has a package of them sitting in a closet.”

Kat Wilson, the assistant director of the Hudson Valley Additive Manufacturing Center at SUNY New Paltz. (Provided)

The clear plastic sheet needs to be held away from the face so that it doesn’t fog up from breathing while in use. The team used 3D printers to manufacture biodegradable polymer headpieces with two crescent-shaped bars. One hugs the forehead. The other, studded with nubs that fit through holes punched in the sheet of film to hold it on, stands further out. Smaller plastic pieces link up at the back of the head using rubber bands.

“We modified the design to make it print faster,” explained Freedman. “The shields are considered single-use items, so we had to figure out how to print them as fast as possible.”

R&D happened on the fly, with each batch sent up to Tech City for field testing. Milgrim reported the feedback from the test-site workers to Freedman, who then tweaked the design. “We went through nine prototypes in about three days, trying to make them more comfortable and easier to assemble,” said the New Paltz engineering dean. “It’s a lot like writing. Your first draft is unlikely to be your best.”

While the transparency films were a quick and easy fix that “work in a pinch,” in Freedman’s words, HVAMC is now switching over to using “higher-end” 0.005-inch-thick PETG polyester sheets for the face-protection component. He regards HVAMC’s creation of the prototype as a stopgap operation in a time of urgent need. He has hopes that IBM might take over local 3D printing and assembly on a larger scale, and that large plastic-packaging companies should be able to convert to printing them.

The Novo Foundation and Central Hudson are helping to pay for the initiative at SUNY. Several other entities in the mid-Hudson have joined in the manufacturing effort, including Schatz Bearing Corporation in Poughkeepsie and the STEM labs at Arlington and Rondout Valley high schools. The latter is already supplying face shields to Ellenville Regional Hospital.

About 20 individuals with home-based desktop 3D printers have also volunteered to participate, and anyone who wants to get involved can download design templates at the HVAMC website. “If you’ve got a 3D printer, we’d love your help,” Freedman said. “We’ll keep cranking them out until somebody much larger can start supplying them.”

The demand for these devices is not going to drop off anytime in the immediate future. As of yesterday, production at SUNY’s Engineering Innovation Hub was up to about 200 pieces per day.

Besides the initial orders for the Ulster County/Nuvance testing site, additional batches have been sent to Cornerstone Family Healthcare facilities serving disadvantaged populations in Orange County. More were being printed to send to Woodland Pond in New Paltz. And Tops Markets had just announced that its associates interacting with customers would begin wearing protective face shields at all its 162 stores in New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont, including three in Dutchess and Ulster Counties.

For Dan Freedman, the nimble response to this need made possible by the recent popularity of 3D printers is a public affirmation of the modern economic model of distributed manufacturing. “It’s unfortunate that we had to have a health emergency to make it happen,” he said, “but I’m really glad that we could help with this.”

The design templates for the masks are on the HVAMC website at www.newpaltz.edu/hvamc/covid19faceshields.

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