COVID-19 response efforts at UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State University have turned a dedicated group of applied physical science and engineering professors into the closest of collaborators — and yet, they’ve never met in person.
Professors Rich Superfine and Glenn Walters at UNC-Chapel Hill and their faculty colleague Landon Grace at NC State recently connected based on their shared commitment to create personal protective equipment desperately needed by hospitals and health care workers during the COVID-19 crisis. Their determination to make a life-saving difference has them talking on the phone and coordinating continuously as they work together in creative ways to support the coronavirus response.
The efforts of both universities are intertwined and similarly beneficial to hospitals and caregivers in North Carolina. At Carolina, makerspace staff, volunteers and medical students are producing face shields made of PETG plastic, while a mechanical and aerospace engineering team at NC State is creating much-needed replacement lenses (cuffs) for powered respirators as well as intubation shields. The NC State project is led by the lab team of Landon Grace, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
At Carolina, the face shield initiative is led by the Be A Maker network that is directed by the University’s applied physical sciences department. In mid-March, BeAM launched an initiative to produce tens of thousands of face shields by the end of April.
“The wonderful aspect of what’s happening is the partnerships across the universities, and Landon Grace has been a really great partner,” said Rich Superfine, chair of Carolina’s applied physical sciences department, Taylor-Williams Distinguished Professor and faculty director of BeAM. “Our partnership with NC State continues on an almost-daily basis for making the face shields and also for other detailed challenges that we face in responding to this situation.”
According to Grace, those challenges include syncing up to source hard-to-find materials. It’s a challenge he’s worked on with both Superfine and Walters, an applied physical sciences professor who’s co-leading the BeAM face shield effort at Carolina.
“I talk to Glenn and Rich about every day, and I’ve never met them in person. It’s mostly about handling supply chain and fabrication issues because we’re all working toward the same goal,” Grace said. “We’re using some of the same raw materials, so there’s been a lot of collaboration on that.”
Walters said that the universities’ shared efforts have resulted in ongoing coordination of logistics. “I have been in daily contact with Landon in support of their work on [replacement lenses for powered respirators] and intubation shields,” said Walters. “We have been routing clear plastic stock to their efforts and have been having one component of their intubation shield fabricated and delivered to them.”
Grace said that the process of designing and securing materials to create the face shields has diverged from what he and his Carolina colleagues typically encounter.
“One of the things that’s different about this situation than the normal design process is that typically we would specify the materials and the dimensions that we need, and we would order it and wait two or three weeks for it to come in. We can’t do that here,” said Grace, noting that the coronavirus crisis requires working on a compressed schedule and adapting to rapidly changing supply chain realities. “So, it’s hearing from Glenn that we might be able to get 0.02-inch thick PETG out of Tennessee by Wednesday and ‘Can you change your design to accommodate that? Because we can’t get the 0.03-inch stock that your current design calls for.’ And so it’s working a little bit backwards based on the supply.”
Walters, who’s been working to design Carolina’s face shield and find vendors who can supply the proper materials in sufficient quantities within a matter of days or weeks, appreciates the collaborative spirit of Grace and his team.
Grace echoes the appreciation shared by Superfine and Walters, noting their work on scouting new avenues for materials. “Those guys have been instrumental in reaching out all across the country to help us find what we need,” he said.
And the win-win of the institutions working in concert goes beyond cracking supply chain challenges, said Superfine. By combining their shared medical and engineering expertise and exchanging insights, both institutions are moving faster to create PPE products that will better serve the end-users: health care workers serving on the front line to treat COVID-19 patients.
“Landon has been amazing in stepping up. He has been talking with UNC doctors and taking on the challenges they’ve presented to him,” said Superfine, noting the sophistication of design and engineering talent that the NC State team applies when building PPE products that address the medical needs described by Carolina physicians. “Engineers build stuff, and those guys are great at it.”