Makerspaces connect, collaborate on COVID-19
Why Innovators Care
Makerspaces across the state are coordinating efforts to manufacture PPE’s for health care workers facing a shortage of gear needed to keep them safe.
Since 2016, the Be A Maker (BeAM) initiative at UNC-Chapel Hill has been working with other universities and organizations across North Carolina to build a network of maker-minded innovators. And although they’re always thinking ahead about emerging tools and technologies, this group of makers never predicted the network they were building would be called upon during a pandemic.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, BeAM’s four on-campus makerspaces typically offer students and faculty a way to design and make physical objects for education, research, entrepreneurship and recreation. That focus shifted at the advent of the coronavirus crisis, when the BeAM group quickly moved into mass-production mode, immediately activating its own resources – and its relationships with other makerspaces across the state – to work faster and more effectively to create personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers.
To help fill the shortage gap on face shields, BeAM has already designed and produced 25,000 durable, face shields for medical caregivers at UNC Health, with the ultimate goal of producing 40,000 or more to help hospitals and smaller facilities, including nursing homes and medical facilities. Two of the people working together on this effort – and in tandem with colleagues across the North Carolina maker network – are Kenny Langley, director of BeAM, and Glenn Walters, applied physical sciences professor, director of the BeAM Design Center and senior technical advisor for BeAM makerspaces.
“I had not thought of makerspace operations in terms of emergency response or community resilience, so now that’s something that all university makerspace systems and programs across the state are more aware of and that will play into different roles in the future,” says Langley. “Everyone is sharing resources, which is the way it should be. It’s been fantastic.”
Walters, who led the design of UNC-Chapel Hill’s face shield product, has worked for years with colleagues at more than 20 other universities, colleges and other organizations in North Carolina to create a community of makerspaces that participate in virtual meetups on a monthly-to-quarterly basis. Those virtual meetups started when a group of panelists – including Walters and colleagues from NC State, Davidson College and other schools – worked together on a panel at an educational technology conference hosted by Elon University. Now, group members also meet during in-person summer summit events, which have been hosted by Elon and UNC-Chapel Hill so far. The connections made among community members have paid dividends during the COVID-19 crisis, said Walters.
“If it wasn’t for the makerspace development efforts that we’ve been going through over the last few years and the connections we’ve made across the state, a lot of these efforts wouldn’t have been pulled off at all,” he added.
When leaders from UNC Health and UNC-Chapel Hill turned to BeAM with the idea of making PPE, Walters and Langley were able to quickly reach out to makerspace colleagues across the state to see what PPE initiatives others might be working on and to jumpstart collaborations.
“It started out as, ‘Hey, this PPE thing looks like it might be an issue. Has anybody else heard this?’ And then we decided with Duke to take the lead and say that we were going to have an online emergency call,” said Walters. “And that has turned into a weekly call.”
Two shades of blue, one shared focus
The face shield effort draws on the strong ties that Carolina’s BeAM group has with Duke University’s makerspace, the Innovation Co-Lab. At the start of the project, both universities were in the midst of determining which design would work best for their respective health systems, UNC Health and Duke Health.
Ultimately, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke chose to pursue a different face shield designs. But as both teams co-developed designs together, each learned from the other’s work by sharing information about designs, materials, and test and evaluation results to refine their respective products. Walters says that he’s been working in concert with Chip Bobbert, Duke’s Innovation Co-Lab senior engineer and fabrication architect.
“The connection we have with Duke is a very strong one,” said Walters. “Chip and I have worked collaboratively on a number of things over the years, so when this all started, we were immediately on the phone talking with each other. We have a pretty tightly integrated process even though we’re producing two different products.”
For example, Walters points out that as the BeAM group at Carolina sent numerous variations of face shield designs to health care workers at UNC Hospitals to get direct user feedback. And while Walters and team used those insights to refine their own designs, they also shared UNC clinician feedback with Bobbert in case it was helpful to integrate into Duke’s design plans.
In turn, Duke offered insight on disinfection and sterilization results for various materials – specifically the clear visors and elastic straps – that the Carolina team was able to use to hone its face shield design.
“Early on, we figured out we had the same problem and were working from the same angle, sharing some of the same legwork and challenges. I was really excited to work with them,” says Bobbert. “They fully understand when you’re building something together, you want to build something that will work, isn’t going to fail or invoke the law of unintended consequences. They are top-tier professionals and understand the design process, the iterative process… they get that.”
In addition to the design work, the two teams collaborate on obtaining supplies, especially when some are in short supply and difficult to find.
“Our relationship with Duke is such that as the deliveries come in – and they don’t always come in when you want them to – we’ve been able to share stock to fill the gap between when our stock arrives and when their stock arrives,” added Walters.
Streamlining the supply chain with NC State
The BeAM team at Carolina also works closely with Landon Grace, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State, to secure supply chain for CAPR cuffs (lenses for self-contained airflow shields that doctors use) and intubation shields (clear plastic boxes that intubation teams use to protect themselves when they’re doing an intubation on a patient). Grace works closely with the biomedical engineering department, which blends the medical knowledge of researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill and engineering expertise of those at NC State University, bridging faculty and students from both institutions to work quickly on various projects, including PPE (personal protective equipment) projects.
“There are really interconnected lines between NC State, UNC and UNC Health, and that’s been amazing to see,” said Grace. “Because we want to move so fast, you have to find people that already have the expertise. And that’s what we’ve been able to do. It’s been incredible.”
With plastic in short supply and subject to stock outs, Walters and Grace have been working together to make sure NC State can secure the plastic it needs, keeping the production of CAPR shields moving ahead.
“Our teams at Carolina and NC State have been coordinating really closely on supply chain issues and material logistics,” said Walters. “We actually have the replaceable thin, clear plastic element that NC State uses in its shield made at our fabricator, and for a while, we have been doing almost daily delivery of those to Landon and his team at NC State. It’s a very unconventional way of doing it, but it’s to keep things moving as quickly as we all need to move.”
In addition, the teams worked closely with BME Teaching Assistant Professor Devin Hubbard, who is also lead design engineer of the FastTraCS team at NC Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute as well as Paul Dayton, William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor and interim chair, biomedical engineering department.
Making connections beyond the Triangle
When UNC-Charlotte reached out to BeAM in Chapel Hill for help with a supply chain issue, Walters immediately connected them with Duke.
“UNC-Charlotte is doing a design like Duke’s, and they have injection molding capacity lined up. But their biggest bottleneck has been obtaining visor material,” says Walters. “We tried to help them secure a supply of that. If people need help, we’ll try to help them.”
In addition, BeAM worked with East Carolina University when it needed visor material and headbands for the face shield it is designing. Through his close work with Bobbert, Walters knew that Duke has an injection mold available for other makerspace groups to use. Together, the universities were able to connect and make sure that East Carolina could take advantage of this resource at Duke to produce the injection molded headbands it needed.
“It’s interesting to see how this PPE work is galvanizing the group and bringing all of these resources into play,” says Langley. “People are seeing some of the collective synergies that can result – not just in a time of crisis – but the larger capabilities of the group.”
Academic makerspaces in the North Carolina maker network include those at: UNC-Chapel Hill, Elon University, NC State University, Duke University, Wake Forest University North Carolina Central University, UNC-Wilmington, East Carolina University, Western Carolina University, UNC-Charlotte, Appalachian State University, UNC-Greensboro, Davidson College, Winston-Salem State University, North Carolina School of Science and Math, Riverside High School (Durham), and Alamance Community College.