One struggle for many parts of the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic has been providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to those professionals who need it in the course of their work, from doctors and nurses to hospital staff who work to keep facilities sanitized to protect patients. But the production of PPE doesn't have to be exclusively the work of giant household names like 3M, Honeywell, or DuPont; local makers can make significant contributions with their know-how and hard work.
Located in Chicago (just a brisk walk from my apartment, in fact), DePaul University is a highly-regarded university with roughly 22,000 students, and it hosts the Idea Realization Lab maker spaces, which help students learn to work with 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC mills, and more. Jay Margalus is the faculty director of the two IRL maker spaces, and he and I discussed how the IRL labs and DePaul students and faculty have gotten involved in producing PPE for area healthcare professionals.
The program was able to get moving quickly; it took the DePaul team less than a week from the time they conceived of the project to when PPE supplies started being delivered to healthcare professionals in the Chicago area. "Because of the nature of additive fabrication, it was very easy to get people up and running, and get things into the hands of people who needed them. We connected directly with healthcare professionals to get equipment into the hospitals as fast as possible," says Margalus. "From DePaul alone, there are around ten faculty and staff and dozens of students involved. We have many other participating organizations contributing similar numbers to the effort."
As with so many programs at the moment, the team had to consider how to produce the PPE items in a way that would be safe for everyone involved. "This was a prime consideration during the outset of our efforts, not least because we did not think it wise to bring a large group of people to one central location," says Margalus. "As a result, we developed a distributed fabrication model where people all around the state would print from home, then drop their finished products off at a local leader’s house, where they could also pick up materials to keep printing." Unsurprisingly, the project has a big footprint at home for Jay himself: "My setup is all around the house! I have 3D printers, sewing machines, a vacuum former, and other machines dispersed throughout my basement, front room, and dining room. My entire house has been converted into a PPE generating machine."
Luckily, the team didn't need to spend a significant amount of their time designing the items they wanted to ultimately produce: "There were many existing designs out there, so at the outset we simply chose one and began fabricating it. This was the wildly popular design called the 'Swedish' model, developed for Swedish Hospital in Chicago," says Margalus. "After a while, the NIH came out with an approved model, so we switched to that. Finally, Jeff Solin (who runs Lane Tech’s makerspace and is a part of our group) came up with a design called the “Solin Flat Pack” shield. We have fabricated over 8,000 of these with a manufacturing partner, and are now working on another 70,000."
element14's head of community Dianne Kibbey then brought e14 into the picture: "Dianne at Newark reached out to us; she has a niece who works in an ER in Glenbrook, Illinois, and they needed face shields," says Margalus. "Newark generously sent over ten 3D printers and a bunch of filament so that we could keep our work going. We’ve since been able to get all of the printers up and running to aid in our efforts to fabricate PPE for the state."
And the project continues to grow: "We’re now making face masks in addition to shields and getting them to hospitals, first responders, and independent living, assisted living, and other similar institutions," says Margalus, "as well as the general population. Everyone will need to wear a mask soon, so our goal is to get a mask made for everyone."
And the DePaul team can always use your help: says Margalus, "We have three primary modes of action on our website that were identified early on for those who want to help out: 1) Do you need PPE, or know an institution that does? Connect with us. 2) Can you make PPE? We will link you in with people geographically close to you to get your things into the hands of people who need them. 3) Can you help support our efforts through funding and donations? Our website, http://www.illinoisppe.org, has a place to redirect all three of those groups."