The consortium’s volunteers are helping to put all the pieces together.
In mid-March, as many Texas Tech University students settled into the relaxed lull of a two-week Spring Break, unexpectedly extended in response to the coronavirus, one student had no intention of slowing down.
Bryson Seekins, a master's student at the Center for Biotechnology & Genomics, had an idea to help battle the disease. His plan to 3D-print face shields for health care workers soon ramped up into a flurry of activity that hasn't stopped yet. But it hasn't been a one-man project by any means.
As similar efforts emerged simultaneously in multiple areas of the Texas Tech and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) campuses and subsequently merged into the West Texas 3D COVID-19 Relief Consortium, other students have joined the effort to assemble the shields and make a difference. And, boy, have they.
Seekins had been monitoring the news as the coronavirus spread across the globe. Lubbock had just announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 17, but a nurse friend told him local hospitals already were facing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE).
With many friends in the medical field, Seekins wanted to help any way he could. That's when he realized he had something not many other people did: a 3D printer. Online, he found the design of the face shields being used to supply hospitals in New York. He 3D-printed the individual pieces and assembled one shield to test it out.
"I recognized that I had a unique opportunity to help because I had the equipment available at home," Seekins said. "The shield was the simplest and most effective way for me to use my 3D printer to contribute."
That said, Seekins realized he needed to get more people involved to have any real impact. After making sure the design he'd found online worked, he contacted Sean Scully and Ryan Cassidy with the Texas Tech University Library's Makerspace to see if they could print more.
Getting others involved
On March 23, he sent the design to Scully, a Makerspace specialist, then immediately put out a call on social media for donations of the components that couldn't be 3D-printed: elastic bands, super glue, adhesive foam weather stripping and clear plastic report covers.
A day later, Seekins picked up the pieces for seven shields the Makerspace had test-printed. As soon as they were assembled, he took them and his home-printed model to John Carrell, an assistant professor of engineering in the Honors College, who was already involved in separate discussions with a consortium of people from Honors, the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, the TTUHSC and other community members about the possibilities of 3D-printing vital medical materials such as intubation chambers, N95 masks and ventilators.
Carrell took the samples to University Medical Center (UMC) for professional evaluation by health care workers and, soon, he received the OK to proceed. Standing by, Seekins, Scully and other community collaborators immediately ramped up production.
As their 3D-printing initiative took off, so were similar efforts elsewhere around the Texas Tech and TTUHSC campuses. Honors College associate dean Aliza Wong was in communication with both Carrell and Dr. Cynthia Jumper, vice president for health policy and special health initiatives at the TTUHSC. Al Sacco Jr., dean of the College of Engineering, was working with TTUHSC's Simon Williams, a professor of medical education and cell biology & biochemistry and associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Medicine. Other efforts were emerging in the Innovation Hub at Research Park and the Center for Emerging Energy Sciences (CEES), led by Robert Duncan, professor and President's Distinguished Chair in physics.
Before long, the individual initiatives began to grow together into one massive, coordinated effort with many tentacles – 3D-printing face shields, face masks and ventilator parts. Texas Tech and TTUHSC also began using their wide community of experts to move beyond production into research. Teams from the College of Engineering and the TTUHSC began studies on sterilization, fit, seal and breathability of different types of masks as well as particulate-filtration efficiency of sewn masks of different materials. The College of Engineering began to research and develop alternate types of ventilators. They named themselves the West Texas 3D COVID-19 Relief Consortium.
"Estimates of 350 face shields sounded big at the time," Scully said, "but as of today, the Makerspace alone has produced more than 500 and the Consortium has surpassed 2,000."
For Seekins, looking back over the past seven weeks seems almost surreal.
"Originally this was something I was crowdfunding on my personal social media, and family, friends and a lot of concerned parents of medical workers helped get it off the ground," Seekins said. "Now, we have a massive team of Texas Tech and TTUHSC collaborators, along with a group of community printers.
"The group is growing every single day. I believe we have more than 100 members just within Texas Tech, TTUHSC and the medical community. I'm also leading a group of about 35 community printers that drop off prints each week."
Putting it all together
As important as the 3D printing is, there's another side of the effort, without which the 3D prints could not help anyone. That side is the assembly, and that's where a group of Honors College students has been invaluable.
"On an average assembly day, we have three to four members in the Honors forum at one time," Seekins said. "Due to social distancing guidelines, we have to keep the team very small."
The process is relatively simple, Seekins said. The assembler attaches the foam lining to the inside of a 3D-printed visor, then snaps on a piece of clear plastic sheeting. Under Armour headbands, donated by Texas Tech Athletics, hold the face shield in place on the wearer's head.
There may be only three or four people assembling together, but the work goes quickly. They normally can produce a few hundred shields each session, and they're assembling three days a week.
While working, each person helping to assemble the shields has their own station with all the pieces they need, so they can minimize movement and the risk of contact between assemblers. At the end of the process, the shields are packaged for their future wearers, and instructions for their sanitization – a step that must happen before they're used in health care settings – are included.
It's a process the student volunteers are proud to be included in.
"I hope we reach every health care provider we can in the West Texas region," said Genesy Aickareth, a junior nutrition major from Houston. "Additionally, I hope other universities see our model and start adapting it to help their surrounding regions. The only way we will get through this is if we work together and help each other out.
"I believe our project is having a positive effect on Lubbock and the surrounding areas. We have aided the small clinics all around West Texas in addition to bigger hospitals in the Lubbock area. We are successfully providing PPE to large institutions but also not forgetting the rural smaller towns."
Jad Zeitouni, a junior accounting major and pre-med Honors student from Lubbock, appreciates the collaboration he's seen across West Texas through the consortium's work.
"I am proud to see the far-reaching impact our Texas Tech community has had," he said. "Every week we ship out at least 600 face shields and multiple intubation chambers; this rapid scale-up is due to the collaboration and ingenuity of the Texas Tech community."
The decision to be involved, he said, is a no-brainer.
"I believe everyone should do their part to help in times of national emergency," Zeitouni said. "Health care workers are selflessly putting themselves in harm's way to treat patients; the very least I can do is use my time to make PPE."