The COVID-19 pandemic has created a mass shortage of masks and shields for the doctors working on the front lines against the outbreak. Overnight, an idea became a reality on how DePaul could provide help. Students, faculty, and staff are now using the university’s 3D printers — from home — to create face shields and masks for doctors in immediate need.
The Game Plan
“We hatched the plan on Tuesday night [of March 24], and by Wednesday morning, we had the approval from the provost of the university,” said Jay Margalus, who is a faculty director of DePaul’s makerspaces and teaches in the School of Design. DePaul’s IRL, or Idea Realization Lab, is one the makerspaces. It is completely open to DePaul students and staff members. The lab contains a variety of equipment and resources, including 3D printers, laser cutters, a wood shop, animation studio and more.
Margalus, along with Michael Koenig, who is a student manager at the Lincoln Park IRL (IRL2), drove his minivan the next day, on March 25, to the Loop campus and loaded as many 3D printers as they safely could into the car. It took a second trip by Eric Landahl, a DePaul associate professor of physics and director of the graduate program in physics, to complete the mission.
Landahl and Associate Dean Terry Steinbach also grabbed any other pieces of equipment they might need in the coming weeks from the Lincoln Park Campus. From there, the printers were distributed to students and faculty’s homes.
Within 96 hours, Landahl said, the production design, supply chain, the mass production and distribution of the face shields were set into motion. “All spontaneously grassroots — and it grew in four days,” he said.
Thomas Newsome is a senior game design major and manages at DePaul’s first Idea Realization Lab in the Loop. Alongside making the masks and shields, Newsome is working with other students to complete the shipping logistics and data visualizations for the project. “It’s going to be easier to kind of identify in the public view, where requests are being made, where they’re being fulfilled within the city of Chicago and expanding outside of that as well,” he said.
Inspire DePaul is the university’s crowdsourcing site where the DePaul community can donate to support university-driven programs. In an update on Thursday, Margalus stated that over $10,000 has been raised to help fund the project, which has grown to reach 44 hospitals across Illinois.
A community effort
Making personal protective equipment, or PPE, is not just a DePaul effort, but a greater network of people across the Chicagoland area such as the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Public Library, Bosch Tool Company, and more. Margalus emphasized that this project is a very collaborative effort.
The Swedish Covenant Hospital group was one of the first in Chicago to spark the movement throughout the city. Deborah Beien and her son Richie created the Facebook page 3D Printed Face Shields for Swedish. Richie already owned 3D printers for his business, Limitless Studios LLC, so his mother reached out to the community for supplies to make the 3D printed shields a reality.
DePaul has partnered with the Illinois chapter of the Nation of Makers, so their efforts expand just outside the city. However, the connection goes globally. “The design work is done internationally and revised locally and adapted to each local situation and local requirements,” Landahl said.
By partnering with other institutions, the network has been able to increase their production capacity, and have created and delivered 4,000 masks so far, according to an update on the Inspire page.
How exactly do the 3D printers make the shields?
For someone who has never worked with a 3D printer, the idea of a printer “printing” an object sounds like magic. Each 3D printer has a “slicer,” which according to Newsome, is a software that first gives the printer instructions on how to build the object. It converts the model of the shield then into a physical shield.
Margalus compared the process to a stack of pancakes.“On a very basic level, it’s just a bunch of different layers of things. And so a 3D printer just makes an object in a bunch of different layers using plastic.”
Each shield costs around four dollars to make, which Margalus said is a “very small price to pay to keep healthcare workers healthy.”
“There’s currently four pieces in our mask, it can actually be made with three and this is subject to change,” Landahl said. Between DePaul and collaborators, about 6,500 face shields can be made per day.
The National Institutes of Health has made general guidelines on how to design the shields and what materials to use that the students and faculty follow.
Much like a regular home and office printer, a 3D printer can continuously print and does not have to be actively monitored.
Landahl has turned his house into a quasi-lab. Instead of eating dinner in the dining room, it is used for administrative purposes. He and his family are basically guests in their own homes, as they sleep in the guestroom, and the printers work in their original bedroom. The bathrooms? One of them is now a sterile assembly room.
How are the shields delivered?
The state’s stay-at-home order has left many unemployed, including bike couriers. So now they’re shifting gears and spending their days as the mask makers’ messengers, delivering the supplies straight to doctors’ homes. Most of the bike couriers are volunteers, but Landahl said they are working to use some of the crowdsourcing funds to pay them.
The couriers do not just use their wheels to ride. Upcycled bike tires are also used to make the straps on the 3D printed face masks. Like toilet paper, Landahl said that many people quickly hoarded elastic following the stay-at-home order. With this upcycled elastic, they can make five to ten straps per one inner tube.
Before the shields can be sent to the doctors, they must be sanitized. Margalus said that each mask is bleached and bagged before given to the bike couriers. Once the doctors receive the masks, they clean them again before use.
A doctor can make a formal request on their website and the supplies will be delivered to their own home within 24 hours. Landahl said that this process has gained attention from higher-level administrators and now can deliver directly to Mount Sinai Hospital.
The mask shortage explained
On Sunday, March 29, the White House delivered 300,000 face masks to Illinois. However, Governor J.B. Pritzker said they were not the N95 masks that he had requested, and instead were surgical masks.
Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus started to spread in the United States, the general population was confused and uncertain whether or not they needed masks –– so they hoarded them. The United States has not required people to wear masks, unlike other countries where COVID-19 has also spread in which it has been mandated that anyone going out in public must wear one. The mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, took it into his own hands and has started to tell his city that everyone should wear a mask when completing essential outside tasks, such as getting groceries.
Although there has not been a direct request for Illinoisians to wear masks outside, Governor J.B. Pritzker said he would not discourage the idea.
The CDC appears to be re-examining their guidelines on wearing masks. The possible change in guidelines comes as concerns of asymptomatic carriers rise. Though tests are more accessible than they were a few weeks ago, still not everyone is able to be tested. Masks are most effective at preventing someone who is sick from spreading the virus. Since not everyone can get tested and some people are asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, recommending that everyone wears masks could slow the spread of the virus.
Regardless of if the general public should be wearing face masks or not, doctors are in dire need of them now. DePaul and other community groups are filling that need in the best that they can.
Landahl hopes and predicts that big industry will catch up and start mass-producing masks.
“We have a lot of catching up to do in this country. There’s a lot of things that are in short supply, and the only way can really be met long term is by true mass production,” Landahl said.
What is Next for DePaul’s Makers
Landahl said after the face shields, they want to move on to the next product that they can help build. “The idea is we’ll have a network of people ready to deliver new things quickly. We’re fast and flexible. And we feel that a stitch in time can save lives.”
Margalus and Landahl both agree that DePaul has the ability to bring people together and form a community. “Our mission is imbued in this project,” Margalus said.
If you already have a 3D printer, or know someone who owns one, there are many projects you can help out with that even extend beyond Illinois. HP Inc. and Partners have free downloadable 3D COVID-19 mask models.
If you do not own a 3D printer, the University of Chicago Medicine, along with other hospitals, are also accepting homemade fabric/cloth masks. Joann Fabrics has created instructional videos on how to properly make a homemade mask.
Any organization that is able to help make PPE can fill out a form on the IRL’s website.
Header image by Eric Landhal