Local 3-D printers becoming the front line of the PPE supply chain
As a STEM teacher at Palatine's Quest Academy, Steve Dembo is more than comfortable working in a lab environment. But he's finding his new lab to be a bit disorienting, mostly because the four 3-D printers he has in constant operation compete for space with his laundry and household washer and dryer.
By day, he churns out plastic face shields that are seeing increasing demand from local hospitals. By night, though at a slower pace, his printers (three of them borrowed from his school) craft surgical masks. On his most productive days, he cranks out 40 face shields and seven masks.
"We can all say, cognitively, that staying home is making a difference, but a lot of times it doesn't feel like we're making a difference," Dembo said. "This actually feels like I'm doing something to help."
The proof of that feeling comes from the fact that everything Dembo prints is put into use almost as quickly as he can make it at places like Swedish Hospital on the North Side of Chicago.
That's despite warnings from the FDA that "3D-printed PPE may provide a physical barrier, but 3D-printed PPE are unlikely to provide the same fluid barrier and air filtration protection as FDA-cleared surgical masks and N95 respirators."
Dembo doesn't disagree with the federal warning, but he said it doesn't reflect what's happening a ground level.
"It's the difference between the way they would like things to be ideally under normal circumstances and the reality of the crisis we're facing right now," Dembo said. "Pure and simple, if it comes to protecting the doctors from contracting the virus, whether the design is approved or not, a nonapproved design is still better than not having anything at all."
With federal officials announcing the exhausting of the Strategic National Stockpile of medical personal protective equipment earlier this week, the National Institutes of Health started the NIH 3-D Print Exchange. It's taking prototype submissions through a website and has approved four printable device designs for clinical use. Dozens of additional designs are under review.
Locally, medical providers and emergency personnel aren't waiting for the federal government. Dembo enlisted himself in the growing local 3-D production line after finding the "3-D Printed Face Shields for Swedish" Facebook group.
At 441 members as of Friday morning, an exchange of designs already given the green light by local doctors, hospitals and paramedics is hot and heavy. So are photos of the creations in use and feedback from the users.
Like many people, Dembo found the group because he knew someone who had a personal connection with Swedish Hospital. In the same way, Kane County Coroner Rob Russell found a direct link to another a growing network of teenage robotic teams with access to 3-D printers.
Russell and his staff are already using face shields printed by the teams.
"Are they as good as an N95 mask? No," Russell said. "But I'm making sure my staff is fully suited up, including gloves, eye protection and these face shields whenever they go out. And I'm going to take supplies wherever I can get them right now."
The "got robot?" team, coached by Mike McKellar, came across some open source schematics for the face shields after seeing a YouTube video of their creation with a 3-D printer. The team tweaked the recipe to cut the printing time from 90 minutes to 37 minutes per shield.
They've been churning them out since Sunday and delivering them to Russell, Amita Health St. Joseph Hospital in Elgin and even a local Butera food market.
"When I dropped them off at the Butera, the lady there thought I was trying to sell them to her," McKellar said. "I told her, 'No, this is a gift.' And she just started crying. She was so happy someone thought to do this."
But McKellar said the gratitude is not the payback. The accomplishment comes in showing the young members of the robotics team the value and need to give back and help others.
"In times like this you find out what people are made of, and all the other crazy stuff strips away," McKellar said. "You get your humanity back."
The team is already coordinating with other robotics clubs in the area to start a new network of face shield suppliers.
Like calls for the donation of household aluminum during World War II, Dembo said anyone with a 3-D printer needs to join the new front line of the PPE supply chain.
"A lot of schools have 3-D printers, and we have to convince as many of them as possible to get them out of the dormant labs and into homes," Dembo said. "Anybody who has these needs to turn them on and start churning these things out."