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Boise State, dozens of Idahoans work together to 3D print face shields for local hospitals

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A technology that didn’t even exist a few years ago, could help Idaho health care professionals on the front-line of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A community of makers across Idaho started working together this week to make face shields for doctors and nurses at local health systems. Using 3D printers and laser-cutting tools, they hope to quickly ramp up and help supply hospital systems like Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke’s in coming weeks.

“We were looking at what we could do to help,” Boise State Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering Professor Griff Allen told BoiseDev. “It quickly picked up the Boise State spirit. Suddenly all these people wanted to jump in.”

Allen said an email chain and Slack channel sprung up, with everyone looking at how they could help. Through study, trial and error and consultation with the hospitals, they started to build a plan.

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Project Face Mask

Boise State 3d printed face masks
During a Zoom interview, Vecchione demos some of the prototype work done on the face shield. And yes, they are producing them in blue and orange.
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Suddenly, Project Face Mask was born.

“There are hundreds of different models out there that people have made around the world,” said Amy Vecchione, who oversees the Boise State MakerLab. “Over the weekend we spent a rough and tough process of evaluating this through a vetting process.”

“We’ve heard back from multiple hospitals in the area, saying ‘this would be terrific if you guys could get us these, we can’t get them anywhere,'” Allen said.

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Business, education, non-profits come together

Now, 22 different entities are working on the project – spanning education, libraries, businesses, and individuals. All rowing together with one goal: to keep medical workers safe.

“What’s really magical is that we are unlocking the help from all the libraries across SW Idaho,” Vecchione said. “Gretchen Caserotti with the Meridian Library District helped design a kit so all the libraries in Idaho can contribute to this one project.”

A group of organizations you might not put in the same breath — suddenly wind up in the same breath.

“The Marsing School District has stepped up to the plate, RV rental companies, robotics firms and more,” she said. “One company called Shook Ideas is helping — 3D printing for people is what they do.”

Even a Boise-based virtual reality gym startup BlackBox VR is providing a unique service: help with sanitization.

Black Box VR has these ultraviolet boxes they use to sanitize their VR headsets,” Allen said. “We’re working with them to figure out a process to sanitize these visors in the headset boxes.”

Making sure the visors are sterile is a big part of the process.

“The cool part about this project, is we are working on a way to create the parts safely in a sanitary way. We don’t want to make the problem worse with our efforts,” Allen said. “People can get involved without having to have a certified lab – we can say ‘follow these safety procedures,’ then we will do some sanitization.”

Allen said 3D printed parts often trap air, and they contain cavities and grooves. Along with the UV concept, they worked out a way to bake the parts at a low temperature for a longer period of time.

How it works

To put together the shields, makers will start with sheets of plastic. A laser cutter works to transform the large sheets into 50 individual face shields.

The 3D printers swing into action, making the parts that help attach the face shield to the faces they are designed to shield.

Then the shields and visor pieces get assembled — and if all goes well, will start rolling out to local hospitals. By the thousands.

“We’re trying to get up to making more than 50 or 60 per day,” Vecchione said. “Since we have 22 different entities, I think we can get to the thousands that they were asking for.”

Hospitals told them they struggled to get the shields on the market. The shields could come together with another locally made product, hand-stitched fabric masks.

“We’ve heard back from the hospitals,” Allen said. “They are having a very hard time getting the respirator masks, the N95 masks. Their feedback is if you could combine a homemade mask with a visor, it becomes much more effective. You can use things made locally – as opposed to waiting for ones to come in from other places.”

Innovation through ‘the fog’

Vecchione thinks that innovation helps the community – and shows the Idaho and Boise State spirit.

“Idaho is known for innovative solutions and Boise State in particular. I think we are transitioning to solutions through this fog,” Vecchione said. “If we don’t get overwhelmed, we can solve things. It’s just taking us a little bit of time.”

Initial funding came from the CAES Technical Assistance Program. If you’d like to donate to help the effort, contact Heather Kimmett at Boise State.

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