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Date: April 13, 2020
All appears quiet on the campus of James Madison University (JMU), as students and staff work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Inside JMU Libraries, however, dozens of 3D printers are running nearly around the clock, producing face shields for local hospitals, hospices, eldercare centers, and healthcare workers.
More than 20 staff and faculty from across JMU have joined forces with community members, hobbyists, schools, and local businesses to respond to the national personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage, some 3D printing PPE from their own homes. 3D printing face shields is just one part of a larger campus/community effort to supply essential protective gear for local needs by sewing face masks, laser cutting face shield parts, creating hand sanitizer, and donating personal protective equipment.
A local makers group aiming to address the PPE shortage was initially organized by Jeff Guinn, the owner of the Harrisonburg shop The Mark-It. Now, JMU faculty members are bolstering the effort, including Jamie Calcagno-Roach, Laura Taalman, and Adrienne Hooker. Taalman, professor of mathematics at JMU, recalls how JMU Libraries got involved after the makers group received a request for 1,200 face shields from Sentara RMH, the local hospital. “The order was so big that we needed the cavalry of JMU [3D printers],” Taalman says. “Bethany Nowviskie [dean of JMU Libraries] was proactive and fast-acting in pulling staff and facilities together and getting approval so that Libraries employees could run [3D] printers at JMU under restricted campus access.” Nowviskie adds, “it was all Jamie Calcagno-Roach, Grover Saunders, and the whole little team, who made a solid case, responded quickly to all my requests, waited patiently while I got us connected to the larger JMU PPE effort, and helped develop a plan to keep everybody safe and make a difference in the world! All I did was rustle up some extra [3D printer] filament and say ‘yes.’”
Adrienne Hooker, professor of media arts and design at JMU, has taken a leadership role in organizing the makers group. “I’ve been involved with the group since the beginning by connecting people and resources along with 3D printing components out of my home,” she says. “My connections originated from the Integrative Design Technology Fellowship through JMU Libraries….It has been amazing how quickly JMU has not only provided access to materials, equipment, and personnel, but really taken a leadership role in this endeavor.” Nowviskie explains, “This was already rolling as a community project and when the request came to get the Libraries formally involved, I connected the group with Sharon Lovell [dean of JMU’s College of Health and Behavioral Studies] to make sure we were being driven by expressed needs of the health care providers she has been working with. Even before I authorized use of our on-site printers (nearly 30 of them)… they were using printers they maintain in their private homes.” Taalman adds, “I also happen to have access to a lot of personal 3D printers that I’m happy to say are now all working, and I’m printing out nearly 50 shield sets a day just from my own army of printers!” Additional printers are still being loaned out to maximize production off-campus while social distancing. Taalman explains, “Jamie Calcagno-Roach is in the process of mobilizing a team of JMU faculty to start printing on loaner printers from JMU 3SPACE, the 3D printing classroom in JMU’s Carrier Library.”
After creating prototypes of the 3D printed face shield design for the hospital to test and approve, the community-based makers group started working to fill the hospital’s order for 1,200 face shields. So far, the makers, including JMU Libraries staff and faculty who have volunteered for this project—Jamie Calcagno-Roach, Grover Saunders, Dan Easley, Art Pekun, Kirsten Mldoyna and Kevin Hegg—have produced and delivered 600 face shields to the hospital. “This design uses two 3D printed parts, a clear sheet of plastic, and an elastic band to make a reusable face shield,” says Art Pekun, a 3D printing media specialist at JMU Libraries who is leading the 3D printing work in the new History Studio in JMU’s Wilson Hall. “We have a local source of clear plastic and elastic bands. All we have to do is keep making the 3D printed parts.”
Taalman, who serves as the 3D printing technical lead for the makers group, is also helping to organize and mobilize 3D printers around town. In this role, she needs to balance speed with quality. “Based on the 3D printers that are available, I create ‘sliced’ files that are optimized for speed so that we can increase the number of print runs we can fit into each day,” she says. “The goal is to get the most out of each 3D printer while still preserving the integrity and safety of the final printed shield model pieces. I try to figure out the maximum print capacity we can run each day and then try to troubleshoot any broken printers or other issues that might slow people down. It’s kind of both a race and a marathon.”
Throughout this effort, JMU is protecting volunteer worker health and community health. Nowviskie explains, “A very limited number of Libraries folk are entering our buildings to work on this project, under tight tracking and sanitary controls.” Kevin Hegg, the Libraries’ director of digital projects adds, “We keep our spaces clean and disinfected. We track all of our comings and goings… [and are] working with a mask on.”
The experience has been rewarding for the JMU faculty and staff on the front lines of the 3D printing effort. Jamie Calcagno-Roach, a JMU Libraries’ faculty member who educates JMU faculty on using 3D printing in the classroom and advises the student 3D printing club says, “It is amazing to see 3D printing being able to make such an impact during this pandemic. Applying these skills directly to meeting local needs provides an excellent example for why we invest time and resources into teaching the JMU community about 3D printing and digital fabrication.” Kevin Hegg adds, “I am so grateful that I’m playing a small part in this grassroots movement. The spirit of quiet cooperation for the public good helps me cope with feelings of anxiety and helplessness. I think I speak for all of us when I say the real heroes are the health care workers risking their lives. We are trying to mitigate that risk as best we can.”
The local network of PPE producers is continuing to grow. Beyond the Libraries, multiple other JMU departments have been dedicating time, effort, and materials. Nowviskie notes, “We’re especially grateful to Dean Bob Kolvoord of the College of Integrated Science and Engineering, who made extra printer filament available to us from CISE and X-Labs.” Additionally, local business people are involved, including Jeff Guinn of The Mark-It and Nathan Cooper of Modus Workshop. According to Adrienne Hooker, local schools have also joined the effort: “We have Rockingham County schools, Harrisonburg schools, Blue Ridge Community College—all of them have jumped in as well. So this has grown exponentially, which is what we need.”
Despite the groundswell of community support, the need is still great. It’s not too late to join the effort. “We still want to build our capacity,” says Hooker. “Even if you don’t have a 3D printer, you can help by donating to the RMH crisis fund or help with buying materials. Our makers are using what they have, but we will run out soon. JMU Libraries is amazing that way. They’re not just providing personnel and equipment; they are also donating some of the materials.”
Visit Hburg Makers Help to contribute to these efforts or request PPE. According to Hooker, “It’s such a great group to be a part of. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can get you started quicker than if you were on your own, and help connect all the dots so we’re all being as impactful as possible.”