Supplies are scarce during the COVID-19 pandemic, but within eight days a group came together to create a local nonprofit organization to help out.
Tommy Luginbill, director of TechPort, a technological incubator that targets startups and is located at the St. Mary’s County Regional Airport in Hollywood, told The Enterprise last week one of his interns, 19-year-old Alec Dobbins, was curious about being able to use the facility’s 3D printer to print face masks for people who need them. The two decided to try printing the face mask frames which would give the user a choice in medium for covering their nose and mouth.
After coming up with a few designs, the frame was successfully 3D printed using a Markforged 3D Printer. When you take this frame, add a high-grade cleaning cloth and secure with a rubber strap, a medical safety mask is created. A single mask frame was taking about an hour and a half to prepare, which is a relatively short period of time when considering the demand during this pandemic. However, Dobbins’ newest design only takes 28 minutes to create.
Although the frames weren’t exactly proper N95 masks, which are recommended for protecting against infection, the masks could be used to replace the ones people need for other reasons, such as working outside around pollen or dust, and be distributed to others who have nothing else.
Luginbill and Dobbins posted a video online of the creation and people started getting interested, the director said, including the county’s department of emergency services. They began with printing around 10 face mask frames a day.
“When the situation is drastic, people start getting creative,” he said.
Volunteers began reaching out with different design ideas for masks, and once Luginbill enlisted local business owner Matt Hayes and a local artist to help, they created a Slack Channel, where interested people could communicate online about ideas regarding the project.
“Within 24 hours, 50 people with engineering backgrounds” joined the group, he said. “Organically, the group started to vet different technology and sort through ideas.”
As TechPort was printing prototypes of the frames using the printers in the basement, word got out and the group was contacted by institutions outside of Southern Maryland, such as the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore and the University of Florida.
Through this “grassroots” effort, three key technologies have come out of the collaboration so far, Luginbill said, including the face mask frames, face shields and a design for a shipping container that could use heat to sanitize the masks.
After some doctors and nurses suggested the group make face shields and the discovery over the weekend two people from the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home tested positive for COVID-19, a design for the shields was completed within hours and work on prototypes began immediately.
Volunteers got together — while practicing social distancing — with a plan to produce 200 face shields for the staff at the local veterans home, finishing final assembly and sanitization over the weekend.
“The veterans home will be the first group to get the face shields,” Luginbill said, but mentioned they plan to make more to distribute to other locations.
He said the they are not out to make a profit or patent their technology, rather they are making the designs available for anyone who needs or wants them, making this project possible in other communities.
Around 7:30 p.m. on Monday, the first batch of face shields was delivered to the veterans home, 30 in all. The group is waiting on an elastic shipment to make the part that wraps around the head, and “is back finishing the rest,” Luginbill said.
Dobbins said this week he “didn’t expect” his idea to evolve so quickly but he’s “glad he printed something that could help the community … it’s been amazing.”
Luginbill remains optimistic in this time of crisis.
“There’s a role for everyone,” he said. “I’ve been able to watch something spectacular take place.”
From pump to ventilator
Another project is also in the works. Brandi Gerstner, an engineer with a background in biomedical research, and her colleagues have created a ventilator out of a breast pump to provide needed medical services.
The airflow is reversed with this breast pump, so the air is instead pushed out. After adding an Arduino controller to make it compatible for each individual patient, a standard ventilator is made. After seeing the ventilator shortage currently affecting the nation, Gerstner decided to push this idea out and work with the group.
Luginbill said, “Right now I’m working on helping them take in the pump donations. They are working with the group to prototype a few designs and then test their efficacy. Once comfortable with the efficacy, the design and specifications will be shared with the public.”
The TechPort COVID Group filed for nonprofit status Monday morning and expects the process to take several months.
Local marine parts factory helps out
At his April 7 press conference, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said “this crisis is actually bringing Maryland closer together” despite social-distancing through all of the ways the community has reached out to help. He mentioned Sailing Specialities Incorporated, a marine parts factory in Hollywood, converted its operations to produce 500,000 face shields for medical workers treating coronavirus patients.