Georgia Gwinnett College IT lab using 3D printers to make PPE for health care workers

As many Americans feel helpless sequestered in their homes as the coronavirus pandemic enters its second month and health care workers on the front lines face critical shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) nationwide, a group of information technology (IT) and digital media experts in the School of Science and Technology at Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) have found a way to join the fight against COVID-19.

“It was professor of mathematics Katherine Pinzon’s idea,” said Estephanie Gonzalez, a GGC IT laboratory supervisor. “She suggested maybe we could get student workers on campus to use our 3D printing machines to help out. We have three 3D printers in our digital media lab, and the technology has been progressively getting better and better over the last few years, so it was the perfect time to have them available.”

Gonzalez researched health care workers' immediate PPE needs on the website, a national, centralized platform created to enable communities to get PPE to health care providers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. She determined immediately that GGC’s machines could produce desperately-needed face shields and ventilator parts. From there, she turned to UCLA’s Lux Lab, a collection of emerging technology services offered by the UCLA Library, which has built a 3D printing PPE equipment page that offers free downloadable models of several mask and parts designs that are continually assessed by UCLA Health.

Gonzalez enlisted GGC student Jesse Merida, a senior majoring in digital media who has many semesters of experience working with the 3D printers. Merida took the downloaded UCLA designs and started printing during the last week of March.

“The 3D printing community has really come together to outsource those models that anybody can grab online,” said Merida. “We figured GGC could join in on this. The models from UCLA are great because their 3D printing club prints the parts out and then runs them by workers at the local hospitals there, so they keep upgrading their designs.”

Gonzalez and Merida settled on a face shield design to start with because, while not as effective as the N95 respirators, face shields still assist in preventing droplets and airborne particles from entering the eyes, a known source of transmission, and also have a high likelihood of making their way to a hospital quickly. Other PPE parts such as ventilator valves need to be vetted and approved by the medical institution they go to.

The face shield parts also are made with a material, called PLA plastic, that GGC has readily available.

“We order a lot of our PLA plastic pretty regularly,” she explained. “Thankfully I put in an order before this all happened. We have two bins full that we can use for this.”

Gonzalez said the college has backed them up 100 percent in this endeavor.

“GGC has been absolutely supportive, financially and helping us find resources,” she said. “So we don’t have to just sit there with our hands crossed. They’ve enabled us to do something that can help in the midst of this crisis.”

As the unprecedented pandemic evolves, global communities are coming together to fight it in unprecedented ways. Gonzalez said this is a good example of that.

“Everybody in the 3D printing community is jumping on board, whether they have one printer, three, or a warehouse full of them,” she said. “This is 3D printing’s time to shine.”

GGC is partnering with Northside Hospital and Eastside Medical Center, to deliver the critical items. Merida estimates that he alone can make parts for 48 face shields in a month, with the hope that they’ll also be able to start printing ventilator parts in that time. It may not seem like much in the grand scheme of the crisis, but every little bit helps – and considering the limitations every American is experiencing right now Merida said it feels good to contribute.

“It’s just nice to be able to help, even a little bit,” he said.

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