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As the fight against COVID-19 reaches a critical moment in the United States, with positive cases surpassing 180,000 as of Tuesday, health care providers are faced with an acute shortage of face masks, eye gear, respirators, gloves and gowns to protect them from the virus.
After the City of Los Angeles issued its “Safer at Home” order to curb the spread of COVID-19, Iovine and Young Hall’s makerspace facilities stood eerily quiet. By week two, the Academy’s facilities team mobilized an emergency response to meet the desperate local need at USC’s Keck Medical Center.
Raw materials for the design of face shields
“Pretty much every makerspace in the world is trying to figure out how they can help,” says Tucker Rae-Grant, the Academy’s digital fabrication lab specialist. “Most are facing roadblocks in the form of getting approval and accurate specifications from hospitals.”
In collaboration with the Viterbi School of Engineering and Keck School of Medicine, face shield and mask designs were quickly circulated and approved. An open-source design of a face shield from Czech Republic PRUSA Printers has been particularly popular within the maker community, but Keck wanted a more protective, custom design that would entirely cover the eyes of the wearer so air droplets contaminated by the virus couldn’t enter via the mucous membrane. Within days, Tucker and Jacob Patapoff, the Academy’s makerspace manager, found a better, open source design from the University of Wisconsin and modified it to Keck’s specifications. They are now in the process of finishing the first batch of 400 disposable face shields (200 of which have already been delivered) that Keck says will be used entirely.
Parts for a N95-equivalent HEPA respirator
In addition to disposable face shields, the Academy team, composed of Tucker, Jacob, Trent Jones, Oswaldo Veliz, and Rachel Trapp, has widened its scope to begin producing other essential gear such as a 3D-printable, reusable N95-equivalent respirator that uses HEPA filters (of which the US is estimated to need 3 billion by the end of the year); and reusable face shields using Powered, Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPR) for doctors while they care for the extremely ill. At the request of Keck, the makerspace has also begun testing a design for a ventilator manifold, which splits a ventilator for two people.
As the rate of positive cases for COVID-19 quickly rises, the Academy’s collaboration with Keck couldn’t have come sooner. Tucker says the professionals at Keck see every additional piece of equipment they can produce as potentially life-saving.
Caregivers at Keck testing out face shields
“Hospitals nationwide know mathematically when they will run out of certain supplies,” says Tucker. “Everyone is looking just about one week ahead.”
Makerspaces such as the Academy’s have become unexpected, flexible, lightning-fast assets in the fight to flatten the curve. The more equipment a makerspace can produce, the more time hospitals have before they have to make the difficult choice between who receives a mask or ventilator, and who doesn’t.
That’s why the Academy’s makerspace is in overdrive, says Tucker. “The idea is to distribute production as much as possible, because industrial manufacturers are having trouble keeping up with demand.” The Academy’s 3D printers offer the flexibility to modify parts on the fly, while its laser cutters have the speed to manufacture quickly – two invaluable features when a global pandemic is wreaking havoc on traditional supply chains and resources.
Face shields are measured and laser cut to Keck's specifications
Fortunately, rapid prototyping is something that is built into the Academy curriculum, and digital fabrication specialists such as Tucker and Jacob are experts at the process. “I’ve been teaching rapid prototyping for years,” says Tucker. “But it’s kind of rare I get to do it myself, especially in a situation that’s so real.”
The process of going into full-scale production, from design to prototyping, assembly, and delivery, in just two weeks has been a whirlwind for the Academy’s makerspace team. However, according to Tucker, it is reflective of the process students are asked to work through in their classes every day. “From my point of view, I'm living what the Academy teaches right now,” he says.
As the rate of COVID-19 infection accelerates across California and Los Angeles, the Academy and its makerspace team are committed to responding to Keck’s increasing needs for personal protective equipment (PPE). If you would like to support these efforts – by contributing to the costs for supplies used in the production of face masks, ventilator manifolds, and more -- please email Lynn Miles, firstname.lastname@example.org.