Engineering college using 3D printers to make face shields for COVID-19 fight

Patrick Gardner, director of the Rapid Center in Western Carolina University’s College of Engineering and Technology, examines a set of 3D printer-generated face shield visors that will be sent to health care workers as part of a national initiative to provide personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 crisis.

Faculty, staff and students in the College of Engineering and Technology at Western Carolina University are using 3D printers in the college’s Rapid Center to develop visors for face shields for use by health care workers in their battle with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The work is part of a nationwide initiative by Stratasys, manufacturer of several 3D printers used by WCU’s Rapid Center. The company has issued a call to businesses, industries and universities across the nation to use their 3D printing capacity to make face shields for the medical community.

“We are building the visor portion of face shields as part of a national consortium led by Stratasys,” said Patrick Gardner, director of the Rapid Center. “Our maximum capacity is about 120 per week when we run 24/7. That’s not a huge number compared to Ford, Toyota and some of the other national manufacturers involved in this effort, but each one is a precious commodity.”

The Rapid Center will ship its face shields to Stratasys in quantities of 100 for collection and distribution to hospitals, emergency responders and others on the frontlines in the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Gardner also dropped off a pair of complete face shields Monday, April 6, at Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva for evaluation by the Harris and Swain hospitals incident management team. One of the face shields was created using a Stratasys 3D printer, while the other was made by on a printer from another manufacturer – Prusa.

“If the folks at Harris and Swain are happy with both of the face shields, we can add their order to the Stratasys 3D printing runs and direct them to our local hospital,” Gardner said. In addition, Hugh Jack, the Cass Ballenger Distinguished Professor and director of the School of Engineering and Technology, has access to six Prusa 3D printing stations in the school that he could put to use making the additional shields, he said.

In a separate project, emergency services personnel from another local county have contacted the university seeking assistance with personal protective equipment needs. “It looks like we may be able to use 3D printers to build custom connectors for their emergency gear, which are in very short supply,” Gardner said. “They are shipping samples to us, and we will evaluate to see how we can help. If we can assist them, we may be able to extend that service to other counties.”

Those projects represent just a few of the efforts by the College of Engineering and Technology to take advantage of the expertise of its faculty, staff and students and the capability of its research and development equipment to help solve a shortage of face shields and other personal protective gear needed by medical workers and first responders in the face of the coronavirus disease crisis, said Jeff Ray, dean of the College of Engineering and Technology.

“The Fundamental Canons of Ethics for the Engineering Profession require fulfilling our professional duties, including holding paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public,” Ray said. “The work of WCU’s Rapid Center and School of Engineering and Technology faculty, staff and students to address the COVID-19 needs for PPE is an exemplar of our commitment to aid in this unprecedented situation for our region.”

The Rapid Center is WCU’s research and development facility that collaborates with businesses, industry and entrepreneurs across the Southeast to develop new products and processes, with faculty and staff using the facility’s high-tech engineering labs and equipment to address specific needs. Students work to find solutions to problems during their two-semester senior capstone projects, getting real-world, hands-on experience.