Scaling up

Intubation Shield

Hospital employees test out an intubation shield developed in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

NC State Engineering is increasing production of needed personal protective equipment

As the number of new COVID-19 infections in North Carolina increases, faculty members and students in the College of Engineering at NC State have increased production of personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line health care providers.

In the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) and the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE), production of protective headgear for local hospitals is increasing to hundreds of items per day. Teams in the two departments are also working on new tools that offer protection when providers intubate a patient and that help hospitals reuse N-95 masks.

A face mask manufactured in the Center for Additive Manufacturing and Logistics.
A face mask manufactured in the Center for Additive Manufacturing and Logistics.

Work in MAE began the last week of March, with production of plastic face shields using laser cutters in the department’s machine shop in Engineering Building III (EB III) on Centennial Campus. Led by Dr. Landon Grace, assistant professor in the department, a group of graduate students working with Chris Anderson, the department’s research operation manager, were soon manufacturing a complete head gear with a shield, padding and a plastic film to provide protection between the wearer’s chin and the shield.

In ISE, faculty members and students in the Center for Additive Manufacturing and Logistics (CAMAL) are using 3D printers to produce components for the headgear and shields and delivered their first set of 86 to WakeMed, a local health system, on April 2; the department hopes to scale up to 150 or 200 a day, said Dr. Ola Harrysson, Edward P. Fitts Distinguished Professor in ISE and director of CAMAL.

Early on, Grace and Dr. Tim Horn, also an assistant professor in MAE, began assembling a network of 3D printing capability on campus and in the surrounding community. 3-D printers in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering’s (ECE) makerspace on campus are being used to run components. Faculty members including Dr. Veena Misra, Distinguished Professor in ECE and director of the National Science Foundation ASSIST Center led by NC State, are pitching in on the work.

The department has now posted instructions on how to safely 3D-print needed components for the face shields and drop them off at EB III. Once delivered, MAE graduate students will run a quality-control check and clean the components before assembling them. The student team is observing social distancing guidelines, wearing masks and using other safety protocols.

3D-printed components for face shields from a network of volunteer printers have begun arriving at Engineering Building III on NC State's Centennial Campus.
3D-printed components for face shields from a network of volunteer printers have begun arriving at Engineering Building III on NC State’s Centennial Campus.

By April 3, the MAE team was producing 200 face shields a day for donation to WakeMed and UNC Health, another local health system, both of which serve North Carolina’s Research Triangle region.

When the supply of plastic film for the underside of the shield ran out, the team reached out to a local polymer processing house, Polyzen, Inc., based in Apex, NC. The company was able to immediately ramp up and supply the requested quantities of film.

New Tools

An intubation shield developed in MAE consists of a clear plastic case with two arm holes at the top. The shield can be placed over a patient’s head, providing protection for a healthcare worker inserting a breathing tube from potential exposure to aerosolized particles from an infected patient’s respiratory system. The open end of the case features a pull-down screen to provide protection for a healthcare worker standing at the other end of the patient’s body. That screen can be removed and disposed of after use.

The MAE team is producing five shields a day, and Grace is delivering them to UNC Health for use at local facilities.

Harryson said that ISE has been approached by WakeMed for help with holders for N-95 facemasks. WakeMed is using heat to sterilize and reuse the masks, which are in short supply. The heat destroys the elastic bands that hold a mask to a user’s face, and the masks are not built so that the bands can be replaced. The mask holders that NC State has been asked to make using 3D printing would allow for attaching new elastic bands after the masks have been cleaned.

Real-Life Learning

Industrial and systems engineering graduate student Matthew White works in Daniels Hall.

Industrial and systems engineering graduate student Matthew White works in Daniels Hall.

Grace said that, for the graduate students, the experience of prototyping equipment, manufacturing it and working with local companies on a tight schedule is a great learning opportunity.

“That experience is invaluable,” he said. “It could not be duplicated.”

In ISE, Harrysson said, CAMAL 3D printers are running 24 hours a day, meaning someone has to be in Daniels Hall at all hours. Matthew White, an ISE master’s student, has worked tirelessly to optimize production, putting the skills he is learning in NC State’s industrial and systems engineering curriculum to good use.

“The students want to help,” Harryson said. “They want to do what they can.”

Rishabh Guha, a MAE Ph.D. student working in Grace’s research group, has been closely involved with the work.

“I feel like I’ve been working in a startup for the last few weeks,” he said.