In the past months, the United States rushed to implement a national response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The severity of this pandemic cannot be overstated, as the death toll has soared beyond 100,000 in the U.S. alone. In light of recent developments, a campus-wide effort is underway to produce 3D-printed personal protective equipment (aka PPE). The Makerspace at Bellevue College was once an engineering workshop open to all students. Now the facility has been converted into a 3D printing station, where a few students and staff are working diligently to output as many face shields as possible.
The Makerspace is overseen by the director of the RISE learning institute: Michael Reese. During an interview, he explained to me that despite widespread material constraints, his team is rendering their time and energy to do whatever they can in this imminent public health crisis. But first, it was pertinent to find out more about the Makerspace itself.
“This is the Makerspace’s third year on campus, and the motto of the space is ‘Build Something Awesome!’ We are open and free to all Bellevue College students. The heart of what we do is what we call ‘open-build hours,’ so every afternoon (weekdays from 2-7 p.m.), students will come in and work on whatever the heck they want. We do a lot of programming as well, so we’ll do at least one workshop a week. It brings together art, design, and technology… You see, there’s a lot of engineering and computer science majors in there, but also a lot of interior design and art majors- it’s a really interesting mix of stuff.”
Only in its early phases, the Makerspace became a production line to churn out hugely demanded PPE. Michael made a point to highlight one student that helped spearhead the cause.
“… The main thing that led us to print PPE was our lead 3D printer at the space, Mat Lawson. You should really talk to Mat; he’s the real expert. Mat was like, ‘It’s a shame that our 3D printers are gathering dust in the middle of this crisis.’ It seemed the height of foolishness to let these machines stay idle when there are so many things they could do for good.”
The online 3D-printing community collaborates using publicly shared data files. The mission of the Makerspace team was to discover a face shield prototype which could withstand efficacy tests, but also extend proven utility to underequipped healthcare workers.
“We wanted designs that had been tested, approved and used in the field. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. We were gonna focus on face shields… We wanted to do something that was as simple, bomb-proof and effective as we could get.”
“One area where we concentrated was home healthcare workers. We partnered with the Service Employees International Union, SEIU-774, and that is the union of all the home healthcare providers in the state of Washington… These are folks who are caregivers, and go into typically older folks’ homes, keeping them out of hospitals and clinics… These folks are doing home healthcare on the frontline. They were not high on the list of PPEs from the big federal stock houses.”
Michael outlined the material constraints seen throughout the pandemic. Widespread scarcities of plastic for face shields, elastic for headbands, isopropyl alcohol and bleach for sanitizers.
“It’s ending now, but there was a worldwide shortage of many materials used to make these things. Our plan is to keep doing this at least all summer, both for our own folks and the SEIU. Now that we’re actually starting to see healthcare workers use the face shields is pretty awesome. We’re saving some for our own BC folks who might want them, like custodial or campus operations.”
But he did also emphasize the joy felt watching students overcome adversity in these stark times.
“One thing I’ve loved about this process is their ability to push through obstacles and get stuff done. It took some doing to get approval even to get students on campus. We have some very clear rules about how to make these things: No more than two people in the Makerspace at a time, everybody wears masks and gloves… You must act as if you yourself have coronavirus.”
Not only has the pandemic caused environmental hazards, but the global response to it has put supply-chains in a tizzy. However, BC students and staff took no shortcut in arranging a PPE assembly line.
“The Makerspace used to look like a classroom. There were tables and desks, now completely taken over by 3D printers. It’s a little Frankensteinian. It no longer looks like a classroom or Makerspace; it looks like a 3D printing farm. It’s fantastic to have people from every part of campus pitch-in”.
“They [the students] come-up with fantastically whacky ideas. And you know, they also print a lot of D&D minis, Pokémon, spaceships and a bunch of stuff, maybe not so useful, but those skills to make the Pokémon figures are pretty useful to making PPE.”
“My background is actually in history and environmental studies… I’m not a technically savvy person per se, but I know enough to be dangerous. It’s the students who are the experts. I could press play on the 3D printer, but if I had to calibrate anything, it would fall apart. It’s the students that are doing this work, and Mat’s been leading them.”
It is no mistake that local community leaders like Michael Reese have decided to focus their willpower towards supporting healthcare workers. Similarly, engineering student Matthew Lawson made crucial strides on the ground.
“I like just helping people. I kind of like teaching people about things.”
One of my first questions related to Mat’s capacity for engaging students and advocating for 3D printing technology. Something of a silent hero, Mat was reluctant to place himself in the picture. However, he illuminated his philosophy as an engineer.
“It’s hard for me to talk about myself. I’m a really humble person, and I don’t like putting myself in things. I think a big portion of my effect on the space has simply been being around and willing to troubleshoot with the machines.”
“A lot of my technical experience comes from researching stuff online because the 3D printing community has a huge amount of people and a huge amount of people putting the knowledge out there. I guess that partly soaked into me. When I teach people about something about how to use the printers, if, at all possible, I like teaching the ‘how’s.’ It’s great and all to teach people how to put the file into the program, and then put the file on the SD card, plug it into the machine and print it. But that doesn’t always result in the best results. Printers sound simple, but they’re actually really complicated.”
“Explaining little details… I like doing because it helps people also sort of become proficient and know how to do things, and hopefully also spread that knowledge on elsewhere. Because people get really interested when they get into the ‘how’s’ and the ‘why’s.’ At least from my point of view, it’s hard to get people engaged when you give them superficial knowledge because it’s shallow. And if something is shallow and superficial, people aren’t going to delve into it more; because it’s shallow.”
Next, I asked him about the transition process, more specifically, how Mat catalyzed student-involvement.
“A huge part of it was within our college community. There’s an attitude that you help the community. That’s something I think a lot of people have. [Around] March, I was sitting at home, not a lot to do, aside from the previous quarter. And I started seeing all these articles and videos about people 3D printing face shields.
“I was thinking to myself: ‘Well, we have the printers at the Makerspace, we could at the very least do something to help the community out.’ Because even a little bit can help, right? So, I talked to Michael, who was thinking along the same lines, and he went to the college admin, and that’s kind of what got the ball rolling.”
Part of it too was, the space isn’t doing a ton (in the foreseeable future). In terms of the budget, we had all this money that would’ve gone to all the other things we would’ve need to spend it on. Why let it sit in a public institution? Why not put some of that towards this, right? Making face shields to help people out.”