The biggest problem Ian Kennard is facing now is obtaining raw materials.
The Lamar University Reaud Honors College senior, majoring in Mechanical Engineering at Lamar University in Beaumont, has been working since March 24 on headband frames for face shields that help protect doctors, nurses and medical personnel who risk their lives every day to take care of COVID-19 patients.
Kennard has enough material to produce about 240 frames, which translates to roughly two weeks of work. What started as a project coordinated with Masks for Docs has grown because demand is high.
“I am getting direct requests for protective equipment from hospitals. There are only a handful of people printing for the Houston group right now, and soon we are not going to be able to keep up with the need and are going to have to start saying, ‘No,’” Kennard said.
LU’s Makerspace team is doing what it can to help, ordering filament as well as providing Kennard with the ability to make the frames in the first place: loaning him a 3D printer when lab closures and the campus transition to online instruction forced Kennard to work on his project from his parents’ home in Pearland, a suburb within the Houston region.
Kennard became aware that Makerspace encouraged student use of its 3D printer on March 5 when he joined the Reaud Honors College Battlebots team, advised by Dr. Kevin Dodson, dean of the Reaud Honors College, and Dr. Kelley Bradley, the director of Makerspace. By mid-March, all 50 states and four U.S. territories had reported cases of COVID-19.
With 25 frames made on campus, Kennard jokingly asked Dr. Bradley who he would have to persuade to allow him to take the 3D printer home so he could continue his project. Dr. Bradley and Assistant Provost Paul Bernazzani, who is also the director of the Science & Technology Building that houses Makerspace, agreed the cause far outweighed the risk of loaning out the printer.
“We want to support students working on important projects any way we can, and in these unprecedented times, we have to be a bit unconventional,” Dr. Bradley said.
Even so, one 3D printer makes about 20 frames per day. Kennard would like to acquire other idle machines to help him make more. He owns a 3D printer himself, but its heated bed needed to print the PETG plastic is broken, which is why Kennard asked if he could use the Makerspace 3D printer.
That printer’s high-pitch squeal has become background noise for Kennard as he focuses on his college assignments. A lot of labor has gotten him to this point where the printer settings are fixed. He had to work from scratch on settings for the printer to use PETG before he could print a frame. Due to the printer’s plate size, he then had to stack the frames so he could print more at once, but that first required figuring out a method of dumping the molten plastic to avoid the frames fusing together and becoming inseparable.
And he had to figure out a method that wouldn’t force him to use a razor blade to separate the frames, because every other frame was breaking in the process.
“You chase your tail for a day fixing a problem and causing three more at once, until you get everything dialed in and it works,” Kennard said.
Now he can swap spools of filament, pull the stack of frames off the plate, press go on the printer to start another stack, and spend five minutes pulling the finished frames apart. Kennard reached this “mass production” period a little over a week ago. Wednesday, April 15, Kennard held a Zoom conference with his Houston contact at Masks for Docs, a group of global volunteers organized to deliver protective supplies to health care workers. Kennard found out about Masks for Docs from a friend he knows through the FIRST Robotics chapter in Pearland, which he participated in during 2015-2018 while attending Robert Turner College & Career High School and now mentors on the weekends, classwork permitting.
Kennard has about 70 frames that will be shipped to Austin or Houston, and he needs to arrange a time to drop off the supplies. Other groups will handle the final assembly for the shields and their distribution to area hospitals that need them. After he drops off his package, Kennard will go to Micro Center, an electronic device store in Houston that has been the only place where he can find the material he needs to make his frames. He would appreciate any donated supplies he can get from the community. He is printing with one kilogram spools of PETG with a
1.75mm diameter. A kilogram runs about $20 and produces about 50 frames.
The staples of 3D printing are ABS and PLA. ABS is strong, but problematic when against bare skin for long periods of time. PLA would not last more than one sterilization and use cycle.
“In a perfect world, PPE would be used once and then tossed,” Kennard said. “We can’t afford that right now, so the material needs to be able to be sterilized multiple times through both chemical and radiation processes. PETG fills this role with strength, flexibility and being able to survive multiple-use cycles.”
“Color doesn’t really matter,” he said, “however, I’ve had the best results with shiny/translucent colors. I think it has something to do with matte finishes allowing for fusing between parts.”
The filament ordered by Dr. Bradley and Dr. Bernazzani has not yet arrived because shipping is so slow. Kennard has been paying for his filament using funds set aside for his Fall 2020 semester at Lamar. And because he is at home, he also can no longer rely on money from his student job as an IT assistant for Lamar’s College of Fine Arts and Communication.
“A lot of Monster Energy, loud music and patience” have helped him push forward, Kennard said, as he juggles Spring 2020 classwork and exams while also working on this important community health care project. Yet the honors student never felt discouraged to take action at this critical moment in history.
“The Reaud Honors College has given me the confidence to take on a challenge that doesn’t come with instructions and has real world effects if I cut corners or do something halfway,” Kennard said.