COVID-19 response: Engineering students lead effort to create protective face shields

UofSC students, faculty use 3D printers to provide face shields to health care professionals in need

As the coronavirus threatens health and upends daily life, members of the UofSC community family are rising to the challenge with a spirit of resilience and concern for others. See more stories. 

A group of University of South Carolina students supported by faculty is coming together to help produce a vital piece of equipment that hospitals are calling for during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Led by Ph.D. candidate Robin James and research associate and adjunct faculty Sowmya Raghu in the College of Engineering and Computing, and supported by assistant professor Austin Downey, the mechanical engineering group is putting together a production and manufacturing line to create 3D-printed face shields for health care professionals, starting with area hospitals.

With the nation facing a critical shortage of personal protective equipment for those serving patients of COVID-19, the students took action to help keep the health care professionals and communities safe.

“We were trying to see as a university how we can help out in any way,” James says. “We talked about designing and manufacturing something that’s becoming short in supply, and that’s how this originated.

“The need is definitely there. We’re trying to see if we can help out and reach as many nurses and physicians as possible.”

The 3D printer creates the head gear to which the face shield is attached. The strap lock is also 3D printed for a one-size-fits-all elastic band. The face shields go on top of face masks for an extra layer of protection. Raghu says that the face shields are printed using suggested designs by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is an extra layer of protection that is essential, because after wearing the gloves and other protective equipment, they should not touch their faces,” Raghu says. “That’s the first step, shielding yourself.”

Downey has helped provide the resources to make the initiative come to fruition, including retrieving as many 3D printers as possible. Raghu added that the main focus is to get sponsors and more printers to increase production. An additional challenge has been working under the guidelines of staying at home and practicing social distancing, which has meant using the printers in homes.

Despite unique challenges, the initial effort has been productive. The group has already been in contact with multiple providers in the state, including Veritas Health Group and the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), to secure certain numbers of face shields. Every facility that is in contact with the students is asking for as many as the group can provide. MUSC has requested 5,000 of these face shields, and the students are starting with an immediate goal of 500 for the first set of production. After that, the next 500 will ship out and so on.

“With COVID-19, everyone is focused on how we can help the community, how we can keep the community safer and healthier,” Raghu says.

This collaborative effort from students and faculty in mechanical engineering aims to help shore up a critical shortage of equipment that health care professionals need to stay safe and healthy as they provide care to those in need. The effort also embodies a sense of community spirit.

“Our goal is to come together in a collaborative effort with support from the faculty. We as students and researchers need to lead this creative initiative as per President Bob Caslen’s message to the community to contribute towards the betterment of society,” James says.

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