Va. Tech gears up to produce PPE for Carilion
75 faculty, students and staff are making protective gear for medical workers and first responders.
Although the Roanoke and New River Valley health districts are seeing fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases than health districts in Northern, Eastern and Central Virginia, the Roanoke-based Carilion Clinic health care system has asked Virginia Tech to help it stockpile personal protective equipment (PPE) in the event of a surge in cases.
Seventy-five Tech faculty, students and staff are working on 10 different projects designing, producing and testing PPE and ventilation equipment for health care workers in the New River Valley. Chris Williams, director of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s Design, Research and Education for Additive Manufacturing System (DREAMS) Lab, is leading the charge.
After Tech began receiving suggestions from Carilion about ideas for equipment that could be produced at the university via 3D printing and other manufacturing techniques, the university started an interdisciplinary effort to ramp up production, bringing in faculty and staff with expertise ranging from fabric design to materials science, virology and sterilization procedures.
“We’re all just trying to do our best to help how we can and every little contribution helps toward a greater end product,” says Genevieve Gural, a mechanical engineering master’s student who works in the DREAMS lab.
Tech is producing face masks, face shields and equipment that can be used for ventilators and respirators — but each of these products had to undergo extensive product design and testing before being deployed for use by hospital workers and first responders. The university didn’t receive outside funding for the projects, Williams says, but has redistributed campus resources. For example, the univeristy libraries have relocated their 3D printers to areas on campus where shields and masks can be produced in a clean environment, which lessens the time needed to sanitize the products before distribution.
Faculty, staff and students involved with the projects are exercising “parallel production,” producing multiple prototypes of each product to be tested to lessen the time between designs. “That’s really critical because it helps the hospitals to more easily adopt these solutions,” Williams says. “[Medical professionals] have to write procedures and they have to clear the safety of the use of these devices before they provide them to medical staff and patients.”
Liam Chapin, a Tech computer science student who has been working on the face shields project, uses 3D printers in his own apartment to produce PPE. With his at-home printers, he can produce three face shields at once, but the process takes hours. The files he’s created, though, have been made public and can be printed by anyone with 3D printer access. The university is also using its larger 3D printers to produce more face masks at a time. Thousands have been produced thus far on campus, Williams says.
“If something works somewhere else, it doesn’t mean it will work everywhere,” Chapin says of the design and implementation process. “We started out with designs that have been approved in other medical facilities and are used in other medical facilities, but were not suitable here because people have different needs.”
The face shields Chapin is producing rise above the top of the head, extend downward past the chin and include “wings” on the sides to provide better protective coverage. Medical workers, EMS and police officers say the masks are comfortable, Chapin says.
Williams has started working with Carilion’s chief pulmonologist to produce ventilators, should the hospital system exceed its current capacity. The idea is to adapt cardiopulmonary bypass machines into basic respirators.
“We’re learning a lot about the needs and requirements to provide safe products so that we’re not providing a false sense of security to our health care providers,” Williams added.