UA Helping Fabricate Protection for Health Care Workers

ppe masks

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The University of Alabama community has come together to help provide 3D-printed personal protective equipment, or PPE, for health care workers locally and in the region.

Two groups across three colleges on campus are producing face shields for health care professionals at University Medical Center, DCH Health System in Tuscaloosa and UAB Hospital. PPE such as masks, gloves and gowns are in short supply across the country during the pandemic of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

A crowdfunding web site is set up to assist UA faculty, staff and students in their efforts.

“Finding PPE is very difficult,” said Dr. Richard Friend, dean of the UA College of Community Health Sciences that operates UMC. “Anything we can do to help the health care workers on the front lines is extremely important. I’m very encouraged by the ingenuity and resources of the University to make this happen.”

Realizing the need for PPE locally at UMC and DCH, Friend formed a partnership with the UA College of Engineering and the STEM Path to the MBA Program based out of the Culverhouse College of Business to print flexible headbands to attach to plastic face shields fabricated using UA equipment.

The College of Engineering’s makerspace, The Cube, which houses 3D printers and other manufacturing equipment, is being used to make the PPE. Large sheets of plastic were cut using a waterjet to form the face shield and printers are used to make the headbands.

“The Cube was already equipped to handle the production of face shields for local hospitals because we house both traditional manufacturing equipment as well as additive manufacturing equipment,” said Sam Andrus, manager of The Cube. “We are able to manufacture all of the parts of the masks in-house and deliver them straight to local hospitals in need.”

The Cube, along with individual partnerships, can produce more than 1,000 face shields with headbands for UMC and DCH and delivered more than 100 earlier this week, said Dr. Ken Fridley, Engineering’s senior associate dean for administration.

The College of Engineering partnered with Culverhouse faculty Dr. Robert Morgan, professor of marketing and also director of the STEM Path to the MBA and CREATE Path to the MBA programs, and Dr. Louis Marino, chair of the management department and the Frank Mason Faculty Fellow in Family Business. Morgan reached out to an alumnus of the Culverhouse Executive MBA Program who works for PPG Industries in Huntsville, Alabama, that provided the plastic needed for the face shields.

McKenna Marino, a STEM Path to the MBA student, went to get the plastic and helped recruit other local students in the program to assemble the PPE on campus.

“I believe this is an invaluable learning opportunity for the STEM and CREATE Path to the MBA students,” Louis Marino said. “It is an example of innovation and social entrepreneurship and an application of skills such as resiliency, rapid design and prototyping as well as understanding how to form and manage coalitions.”

Along with this project, the Alabama Productivity Center, an outreach center part of UA’s Culverhouse College of Business, also began working to provide headbands for face shields used at UAB Hospital. The APC’s two 3D printers were enlisted by the Alabama Power Company’s Technology Applications Center.

APC, which helps manufacturers around the state, normally uses the 3D printers to help companies understand how the additive manufacturing technology could help their business, said Alan Hill, APC executive director.

“It’s the first time we’ve done something like this,” Hill said. “There is no project we’re working on right now with a greater impact than this, especially helping out our health care workers on the front line.”

Jody Beck with APC and his wife Sadie Beck, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, printed the headbands at home and are delivering them to Birmingham.

Hill is working to recruit industry partners to assist so more PPE can be created.

“This is a collaboration,” he said. “We all have different abilities that allow us to work together.”

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