When medical workers everywhere — including the Chippewa Valley — began pleading for more personal protective equipment as they battle COVID-19, Dr. Doug Dunham knew UW-Eau Claire’s Materials Science and Engineering Center could help meet the needs of the local medical community.
“We have 3D printers and we have people with expertise,” says Dunham, a professor of materials science and engineering and director of the MSEC at UW-Eau Claire. “We just had to determine how we can use them most efficiently to help health care workers in the Chippewa Valley.”
To find out, he pulled together a team of UW-Eau Claire faculty and staff and then partnered with Mayo Clinic physicians and staff, and community makers to identify what they could do to have an immediate and significant impact on health care workers in and near Eau Claire.
“By coordinating with physicians and others, we will have a much better end result,” Dunham says of the initiative. “They’re helping us establish our priorities as we decide where to focus our efforts first.
“The last week or two have been a whirlwind, but we now have a plan and are moving ahead.”
Face shields are top priority
That plan identifies making face shields for hospitals in the Chippewa Valley the initiative’s top priority.
“Right now, face shields seem to be the most needed item and the easiest to construct,” Dunham says. “We’ve made them our No. 1 priority because our area health care workers need them now, and they are easiest to move on quickly.”
While face shields typically are used by health care workers as secondary protection, the demand for them has quickly grown because of a shortage of N95 and surgical masks.
Given the increased demand, many hospitals now are struggling with face shield shortages.
Before his team could start making the shields, it was important to have a design acceptable to all the area hospitals, Dunham says. Once the National Institutes of Health published a list of designs approved for clinical use, the project was a go, he says.
“This is a local project, and the idea is to have this benefit all the hospitals in the Chippewa Valley,” Dunham says. “Whatever we make will go to wherever it’s needed in our area. So, we needed to know that what we make will work for all of the local hospitals.”
Now that they have a design, they’ve begun printing and assembling the face shields at UW-Eau Claire’s two Materials Science and Engineering Center’s locations (Phillips Hall on campus and a facility on Clairemont Avenue).
Community makers who are collaborating with the university also are producing the face shields in the agreed-upon design, which consists of a shield made of clear plastic that attaches to a visor and covers the wearer's entire face, Dunham says.
The design is simple, and both the shield and visor can be produced and assembled by students and others on campus, as well as by community makers, he says.
Blugolds step up to help
While UW-Eau Claire faculty and staff are coordinating the initiative, current students and alumni will play a huge role in making the project successful, Dunham says.
“We have resources on campus, so any time the community has a need that we can help meet, then we want to do whatever we can to make that happen,” Dunham says. “Faculty, staff, students and alumni are stepping in to help meet these needs.”
For example, several materials science and engineering students volunteered to help run the university’s 3D printers, Dunham says.
“Printing takes 3-4 hours; 3D printing isn’t quick,” Dunham says. “Students will continuously load materials into printers. If we stagger it so students are in at various hours, we can print 24 hours a day.”
Cuyler Monahan, a junior materials science and engineering major from Mount Horeb, is one of the student volunteers.
“With college being online, I had a lot of time on my hands to worry about the virus and procrastinate,” Monahan says. “So, instead, I thought it would be good to put a little of my time into helping with our current situation. It is good knowing that every shield we make will be worn and appreciated.”
This spring, Monahan expects to spend at least six to eight hours a week helping to make the face shields.
“It’s humbling to help out during this crisis,” Monahan says. “At the same time, watching so many members of the local community put time and effort into their contributions is inspiring and gives me hope.”
Community makers are printing the shields on their own 3D printers, which greatly increases the number of shields that can be produced, Dunham says.
Ben Holmen, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2007 with a major in physics and astronomy and a minor in mathematics, is leading the community makers effort.
As a student, Holman was a research assistant in Dunham’s materials science lab, making it even more rewarding to work on this project alongside his former professor and mentor.
“It's been a pleasure to reconnect with him and work together in our community,” Holmen says. “I'm a proud UWEC alum and I'm so glad to see the university involvement. It makes me happy to think of the 3D printers busy at work at UWEC.”
Holmen says he initially began making face shields on his own after hearing from his sister and others that the shields are in short supply at the Eau Claire area hospitals where they work.
“I had heard of PPE shortages and the work that makers were doing to address them, but I was surprised that we were already experiencing a PPE shortage in our local community,” Holmen says. “I made my first print out of curiosity and with the idea that someday we might need them; I quickly found out that the someday need was actually an immediate need.”
After realizing he could not meet the demand on his own, Holmen asked for help on Facebook. Through that outreach, he connected with 20-plus local people who already were working to produce face shields or eager to start, Holmen says.
“I'm printing as fast as I can and working on coordinating our maker group to keep everyone producing the maximum output of PPE,” Holmen says. “We have such an inspiring group of helpers. It's really a great team of passionate thinkers and doers and it's an honor to work with them.”
Currently, there are 30 printers working in the community, which can produce about 120 frames per day, Holmen says, noting that he’s still looking for more makers to join the effort.
“This is a very unusual way to utilize 3D printing,” Holmen says. “Typically, it is a prototyping tool, not a mass production tool. We view this effort as a short-term way to meet local demand while manufacturing and supply chains ramp up and adjust to the demands of the pandemic.
“A properly tooled factory can far outproduce our printers, but we can respond more quickly.”
The 3D printer manufacturer Ultimaker is sending two more 3D printers to UW-Eau Claire, along with materials, so the university also can increase its production, Dunham says, adding that the company is providing the printers at no charge.
A second initiative
The Materials Science and Engineering Center staff also are working on a second initiative — producing more swabs that are used for testing for COVID-19.
Already, Dunham says, there is a shortage of swabs.
Formlabs has worked with health care workers to develop 3D-printed versions of the swabs, which already have been approved, Dunham says.
“The files to print these swabs are available and we have the 3D printers to make them,” Dunham says. “Mayo Clinic also has printers, so we’re going to pull together to print the swabs.
“Our students will be helping to print the swabs as well.”
What comes next
If in the weeks or months ahead they determine that shields are no longer needed locally, they will work to address other shortages in health care, including producing N95 masks, Dunham says.
While the N95 masks are more challenging to produce, Dunham says he expects his team will eventually develop 3D-printed masks that can pass the N95 testing procedure.
Since N95 masks must fit well to seal, one of their ideas for the future is to work with individual providers to design a N95 mask specifically for them, Dunham says.
“I see this as a long-term opportunity to help the health care industry even after the corona pandemic has passed,” Dunham says of the N95 mask production plan. “In the future, every doctor could have a custom printed N95 mask that fits correctly.
“Right now, we’re in crisis mode. But long term, that is one place we may be headed.”
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Photo caption: Dr. Doug Dunham, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Materials Science and Engineering Center, is working with Mayo Clinic physicians and a community makers group to produce face shields for area hospitals during the COVID-19 crisis.