Pitching in for protection update: 3-D printing expands to mass manufacturing effort

3-D printed face masks
Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Faculty members from three UNC Charlotte colleges have teamed up with local high school students and manufacturers to produce recyclable protective shields designed to extend the life of the disposable face masks used by health care workers combating the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What started as a homegrown effort using a host of 3-D printers producing about 250 shields per week quickly escalated. Since March 30, the group, known as Charlotte MEDI, has been working with manufacturers like Texlon Plastic Corp. and Caro-Poly to create shields via injection molding that allow for a more aggressive production timeline. An injection molder can make four shields per minute (up to 10,000 per day), versus four every eight hours in a 3-D printer.  

The decision was made to produce the face shields because they can be worn in front of an original, industry-tested N95 mask. This recyclable shield effectively extends the life cycle of a mask that otherwise is a one-time-use item.

So far, the group has delivered more than 38,000 shields from injection molding and 2,500 shields from 3-D printing for local and national frontline health care professionals and are sharing what they’ve learned with researchers across the country as they prepare for patient numbers in their states to climb.

And just this past weekend, the group delivered more than 8,000 face shields to state and local health care professionals, including 2,475 to Atrium Health, 2,025 to both Duke University Hospital and UNC REX Healthcare, 1,275 to Novant and 975 to REX ER. The group is producing an average of 10,000 face shields per day, with a goal to mass manufacture 100,000 face shields by mid-April, when a peak in cases is anticipated.

Charlotte MEDI also has  distributed 2,119 face shields to smaller medical facilities and private practices, including 450 distributed to Mecklenburg County EMS since April 1.

The quickly assembled project illustrates the University’s capacity to deploy its academic energy from across the curriculum to tackle enormous and complex problems in the region and even across the country and the globe.

Terence Fagan, associate teaching professor, Mechanical Engineering; Alex Cabral, director of Fabrication Labs for the School of Architecture in the College of Arts + Architecture (COA+A); and David Wilson, professor of Software & Information Systems in the College of Computing and Informatics (CCI) have helped lead production efforts from their homes.

They were joined by art professors Heather Freeman and Tom Schmidt (CoA+A) along with Robby Sachs (CoA+A),  Johanna Okerlund (CCI), Bob Price (J. Murrey Atkins Library) and Joshua Tarbutton (EPIC).

The project got its start when Fagan learned about a local grassroots fundraising campaign to manufacture the protective shields. The #MillionMaskChallenge was spearheaded by Tom Dubick, an engineering teacher at Charlotte Latin School. He and Fagan, who has helped to train Charlotte Latin faculty, have worked together for more than a decade on various engineering projects in and out of the Charlotte Latin Fab Lab, part of a global Fab Lab network that Dubick directs. To date, the campaign has raised more than $104,000 to cover the cost of materials.

“It was almost a serendipitous thing,” said Fagan. “Looking to the future, this is the perfect storm of what we need to do to break down barriers in the academic world and help bring manufacturing back to the United States.”

Though 3-D printing face shields is more time-consuming than injection molding, the process has been a significant learning opportunity for UNC Charlotte students and faculty alike. David Wilson, who leads CCI’s Makerspace lab, said the University currently has an embedded group of faculty members from different disciplines working together on research projects with 3-D printers.

“When this issue of shortages in health care protection equipment came to light, it really took root and production ramped up,” Wilson said from his home, where he has been using a small 3-D printer for his research. “People are doing as much as they can to help out.”

 UNC Charlotte students have had the opportunity to work directly on the fabrication project.

“We created clear instructions on the printing process and began sending out ‘packages’ of 3-D print files for our students to complete on their home machines,” said Cabral. “In the coming days, we should have more volunteer opportunities in design, production and delivery so we will be needing help. We’ve shared all of our injection mold models and tooling here in the U.S. and globally, free of charge,” he added.  “We are fully open-source and hoping to help other communities replicate our model.”

Cabral wants his students to understand they are working on concepts that exist in the physical world. 

“This is an opportunity to live by those teachings while making a difference for thousands of people risking infection to help those most in need,” he said. “It's been humbling to see everyone come together and bring so much experience, whether as fabricators, designers, engineers, medical professionals or industry experts and business owners.”

UNC Charlotte faculty members continue to explore technology options to accelerate production, and so far have shared their work with states including Maine, Iowa, Colorado and California and countries including Germany, India and Ireland. They will ship orders soon to seven states. The numbers produced and shipped increases daily.

 “We’ve begun sharing our work to get their labs running and hopefully helping with the impending national shortage of supplies,” Cabral said. 

He added, “This effort shows how much our faculty, staff and students care about this community. We are neighbors, friends, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters of people working to keep us safe in hospitals and clinics around the globe. Clearly, UNC Charlotte is integral to the identity of our city.”

Other companies in the Charlotte area have assisted in the efforts. Bravo Team LLC, New Wave Acrylic, Makerspace Charlotte, Charlotte Latin Fab Lab and UNC Charlotte’s School of Architecture are securing materials and cutting the transparent shields. Logistics, transportation and delivery are provided by CLT Freight, Spangler Restoration, Hendrick Motorsports and 2ULaundry.