When Demitra Canoutas first learned that UNC School of Medicine students weren’t going to work in health care clinics during the COVID-19 pandemic, she began looking for new ways to help.
“Just looking at the news from other states that were harder hit and their shortage of personal protective equipment, we realized that when coronavirus would eventually become an issue in North Carolina that we would likely face the same PPE shortages,” said Canoutas, a Carolina medical student who also received a master’s degree in physiology from NC State. “We wanted to proactively start making PPE to lessen that burden.”
That mission first led Canoutas and a group of classmates to Home Depot and Joanne Fabrics for supplies, and then, ultimately, to Carolina’s network of makerspaces, where faculty and staff members were already working toward the same goal.
“Fortunately, [UNC Health] put us in touch with BeAM makerspace, which has the expertise and experience to do this on a more professional and larger scale,” said Alex Gertner, a medical student and doctoral student at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Together, the group of medical students and Carolina’s makerspaces — alongside experts from NC State and Duke University — are producing 40,000 face shields that can be used by health care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic.
For several weeks, Rich Superfine and Glenn Walters of the applied physical sciences department in the College of Arts & Sciences had been working on a face shield design that could be quickly made. Working with Kenny Langley of the University’s Be A Maker Network, better known as BeAM, they honed their design and production process.
“There’s no way we could have been rapidly testing and running small quantities without having the makerspaces on campus,” Walters said. “Having the makerspaces was critical to just being able to iterate through a lot of prototypes, test small concepts, run them past doctors and caregivers.”
Working with Carol Lewis, the vice president of the UNC Center for Health Innovation who is leading a multifaceted working group focused on personal protective equipment, the team reached out to engineering partners at NC State and Duke to discuss design elements early on in the process. Those partners, Superfine said, were crucial to bringing their concept to life.
“There’s expertise at their large engineering schools that we can’t replicate here at UNC,” said Superfine, the director of BeAM and Carolina’s Taylor-Williams Distinguished Professor. “We have a different kind of engineering and scientific talent here. Our partnership with them continues on a daily basis.”
They packed two months of engineering into a week. But constructing the face shields wasn’t as easy as simply firing up the makerspace.
They knew 3D printing wouldn’t be the best approach to producing elements of the face shields. A single clip would take roughly two hours to make on a 3D printer, which would be way too long since they aimed to produce thousands in a short period. Injection molding, they found, would be the better option.
While the makerspaces have laser cutters that could cut the clear plastic of the shield, waterjet cutting would provide a better cut. And the time it would take to cut the foam pieces with adhesive that rests against the health care workers’ forehead would be another slow process to do in-house.
To create all these individual pieces quickly enough, they turned to off-site contractors who have the equipment and expertise for the various elements of the design. Walters organized the production line, working with companies to create the pieces on a mass scale. Innovate Carolina is collaborating with BeAM to track and manage parts, inventory and the supply chain of volunteers.
“We were able to make connections with regional providers of materials and local fabricators for doing the kinds of quantities that we’re going to need,” Walters said.
Once completed, the pieces will be sent to the makerspace in Murray Hall where volunteers will follow the health guidelines drafted by the medical students.
“There’s work to be done,” Superfine said. “The hospital is humming. People are in working, and we’re trying to reduce risk as much as possible, but in the end, we have to come in to make this happen. … We have a great team. It’s stunning how dedicated and brilliant our team is in so many different ways.”
Over the past week, the group of medical students have been working 10-hour days to prepare the face shields for mass production. It’s a similar schedule many UNC School of Medicine students are on right now, balancing schoolwork with volunteer efforts throughout the state.
“Everybody is trying to do as much as they can to help out,” said Alex Gregor, a medical student working on the face shield project. “A lot of people have basically taken on a brand-new full-time job in addition to the full-time job of being a med student. If we can’t be working with patients and other clinicians in the hospital and the clinic, we wanted to try to put 100% of that energy in something really useful.”
Early on in the process, the medical students assisted with design decisions, but have since begun serving as medical liaisons by getting feedback from clinicians and creating health and safety standards for production.
“We’re also working with the BeAM team to prepare for the manufacturing, developing a system of standardizing the health and safety of the environment and creating standards for screening people as they’re coming in,” said medical student Ryan Searcy.
Serving the state
Mass assembly of the face shields is expected to begin this week at the Murray Hall makerspace with the help of more volunteer medical students.
“I don’t think any of us imagined that this is what we’d be doing in our third or fourth years of medical school, but it’s been a great learning opportunity and a great way to stay engaged and contribute,” Canoutas said.
For Superfine, who helped launch the makerspace network on Carolina’s campus in 2016, seeing the campus’ maker community come together to produce a device that can help save lives brings his efforts full circle.
While the network is known mostly for the state-of-the-art facilities throughout campus, the face shields are proof of the most significant tool BeAM has brought to Carolina: “The brilliance of the people in it,” Superfine said.
“Establishing a community of technical excellence has been our goal all along, and to see us achieve that and see it play a role in supporting the hospitals and the state is what we’ve wanted all along,” he said.