Shields up: Dal labs collaborate on 3D‑printed face shield for health‑care workers

- April 1, 2020

An example of the prototype face shield. (Provided photos)
An example of the prototype face shield. (Provided photos)

When Ottawa called on universities and research institutes last week to offer their expertise in the fight against COVID-19, Dalhousie researchers quickly mobilized to come up with some of the essential tools needed to combat the virus.

An interdisciplinary team from the Faculty of Engineering immediately connected with colleagues at the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) to explore solutions for a face shield — one of the most critical pieces of personal protective equipment, or PPE, used by frontline health-care workers.

And just days after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued the appeal, the team had successfully designed and prototyped a model that could be made in Atlantic Canada. The prototype was 3D printed and included off-the-shelf parts that are readily available. The design is simple and easily scalable from 3D manufacture to injection molding, which can produce thousands of units to meet the needs of our health-care system.

“In just a week we’ve been able to go from just an idea to something that actually we could produce hundreds of thousands of if we needed to,” says Clifton Johnston, an associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering who is leading the project. He’s also the NSERC Chair in Design Engineering and the academic director of the Emera ideaHUB, IDEA Sandbox and MakerSpace.

“It has been neat to see Dal’s expertise and when you get it focused on a problem, you can make some impressive headway. It brings the level of collaboration up a few of notches to show what you can do when you can get people around the table focused on a common goal.”

A collaborative approach to design and innovation

The team, including members of several Dal faculties, Nova Scotia Health Authority and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, started by evaluating the open source face shields that had already been produced. They then 3D printed some of them and narrowed the options down to a few that had the best potential, working closely with NSHA to ensure they met infection prevention and control standards.

When they arrived at a version they liked, Jeremy Brown, a professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, made a quick prototype to be reviewed by a team at NSHA — a critical step to validate the design with the health-care workers that will ultimately be wearing the face shields while caring for patients. After a few modifications, they settled on a unique design for the face shield’s headband.

Dr. Johnston says the rest of the device — the clear plastic shield and the elastic bands that hold it on the user’s head — will be sourced from other manufacturers that they have contacted. They could also work with another contractor to produce the headbands using injection molds if large quantities are required.

A united front

Dalhousie President Deep Saini says he has been heartened by the work of researchers across the campus who quickly offered their skills in the effort to help frontline health-care workers, while also seeking answers to questions around the virus itself.

“While it is a time of anxiety and uncertainty, there is also reason for optimism. Our community has demonstrated strength, resilience and determination,” says Dr. Saini. “Our researchers have joined the global fight to combat this virus and will continue to work tirelessly, providing essential tools and expertise.”

Dr. Alex Mitchell, senior medical director of the QEII New Generation Project and co-lead of NSHA’s PPE working group, says, “Sourcing the appropriate personal protective equipment to keep Nova Scotia’s health-care providers safe throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is vital. Partnering with Dalhousie, NSCAD, ACOA and our industry partners to explore innovative, local production capabilities for PPE is a big win for all of us – most of all, for health-care providers.”  

The work has required some ingenuity and adaptation, since Dal labs have been shuttered temporarily and faculty and students are working remotely.

“We distributed the 3D printers to our engineering team so they could continue to work from home,” Dr. Johnston said from his home, where he has been using one of the printers that’s about the size of a small breadbox.

“We’re using Microsoft Teams and lots of emails to manage this process…it’s been interesting.”

Doing our part to help

The project is just one of several happening across Dal to help supply frontline workers with the resources they need in dealing with the virus.

Matt Hebb, assistant vice-president of Government Relations and Economic Development at Dal, convened a group to start assessing what parts might be needed, and whether existing equipment could be modified or if new products needed to be created.

“As soon as this started to hit, people have been thinking, ‘What can we do to help?’” he says. “We are working with NSHA to determine what is needed. We’re trying to be as aware as we can about the context and the best things we can focus on. We’re just interested in being helpful where we can.”

“It’s great to see the Dal community mobilizing around this stuff,” says Hebb.

The innovation ecosystem and Dalhousie University are working collaboratively to provide solutions for the health-care system as a response to COVID-19. More solutions like the face shield are also underway.

The university’s Environmental Health and Safety Office is collecting a range of supplies that can be used by health-care workers. They have gathered gloves, gowns, pipettes, face masks and other materials offered up by labs in various departments.

The Dalhousie Space Systems Lab is also in the process of developing a prototype of a mechanical ventilator, a critical piece of equipment that helps a patient breath by moving air into their lungs. The lab has assembled a taskforce to design a small, portable ventilator that could be used by hospitals if needed.


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