In UVic lab, printers cut face shields — for a start

As nine 3D printers in a UVic lab busily tap out parts for medical face shields for Island Health, biomedical engineer Stephanie Willerth’s mind is buzzing with more ways to make and re-use protective equipment amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think this would be just part of a larger effort to be working with Island Health, now that we have the community together,” said Willerth, a University of Victoria engineering professor and acting director of its biomedical engineering program.

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The university is working with at least 10 Vancouver Island businesses, industries and individuals with 3D printers to produce more than 4,000 medical-grade face shields for Island Health.

Foreman CNC Machining in Sidney is cutting the plastic shields and Coast Capital donated $10,000 in what is “a very big community effort,” said Willerth.

The transparent shields fit over goggles and surgical masks to protect front-line workers such as nurses and doctors so they stay safe while treating patients. Camosun College is producing 9,000 face shields in a similar effort.

But it’s just the beginning. While many businesses and industries are shutting down because of the pandemic, others such as Willerth are repurposing their labs and retrofitting their businesses to answer the demand for medical equipment.

The manufacture of surgical gowns, ventilators, and intubation boxes by private industry are all possibilities under discussion with UVic. There’s also a push on to figure out best practices to sterilize and re-use personal protective equipment.

Willerth is champing at the bit to see universities involved in testing COVID-19 samples, too. She’s interested in both testing the swabs and researching samples in the race to find antibodies and vaccines with local companies.

“This is very much the mechanical side you see here — assembling face shields and devices,” said Willerth. “We are also considering the biological response and being able to, just at a basic level, do the tests and look at the differences in diagnosis as well as doing research into how we can we prevent this.”

Willerth said her lab has some of the equipment to do the testing — a DNA sequencer, for example — and could be easily brought up to the testing standard required. “I think in the coming weeks, they will talk about opening up universities to run the tests,” she said. “I think the universities are waiting for Health Canada guidance.”

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province is supporting some of the research in B.C. universities on development of tests, and they will be validated through a process with Health Canada.

“It’s being led through our [B.C. Centre of Disease Control] public health lab and the research team at the B.C. CDC that is connecting with researchers from around the world around a number of these projects.”

The university is also talking about how it can help its industry partners. Victoria’s StarFish Medical, for example, is working with the federal government and other companies to design, develop and produce ventilators.

Viking Air, with expertise in complex fabrication and machining, is looking at how to redeploy its manufacturing resources and 3D printers to build medical supplies, said David Curtis, chief executive officer of Longview Aviation Capital, owner of Viking Air.

While UVic temporarily suspended all but essential on-campus research as of March 26, faculty deans can approve exemptions for research and activities related to COVID-19. There are about two dozen exempted research projects to date, with more being proposed, in areas ranging from digital technologies to biochemistry, genome research, proteomics, nursing, law, mathematics, social sciences, exercise science and 3-D printing of supplies.

This summer’s co-op engineering students have many avenues of invention open to them, including the creation of physical distancing and information apps to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, said Willerth.

She said it’s inspiring to see the outpouring from businesses willing to help make parts for personal protective equipment and ventilators, and donors stepping up to fund these initiatives.

At the door of UVic’s engineering lab is a donation bin for plastic headbands for face shields, made by those who have the materials and equipment. (For those with 3D printer access, a list of the required medical-grade materials and headband design can be found at: prusaprinters.org/prints/25857-prusa-face-shield.)

Once dropped off or made at UVic, each headband and shield is sterilized and packaged at the university for delivery to Island Health.

Willerth is also happy to hear from other local industries that want to supply materials or resources. An expert in 3D printing, she would usually be printing living tissues, not plastic headbands, but in the midst of a pandemic, everyone is adapting.

“There’s a huge role to play for 3D printing in quite a wide variety of medical technology, not even just pandemic-related, but in general for medical devices,” said Willerth.

David Gilmour, mechanical designer for Phillips Brewery Co., normally uses his company’s 3D printer to create prototypes or replacement parts in the brewing process, but says volunteering to make face shields for health-care workers as part of the university’s efforts was a “no brainer.”

Trevor Harman, a UVic mechanical engineering grad, first became involved in sourcing personal protective equipment for his wife, family doctor Caitlin Harmon. That turned into co-ordinating and sourcing materials for a growing group of entrepreneurs and businesses wanting to collaborate with UVic.

Harmon said he has been working with Columbia Fire and Safety, Rainhouse, Phillips Brewing, LaserCamFab, Division of Family Practice, KMS Tools, UK Sails, GT Water Machines, Salt Spring Shine, Victoria Distilling, Victoria Waterjet and Bryn Finer Studios as well as hobbyists and more.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface,” said Harmon of those who can help. “We can ramp as directed to fill any supply-chain gap that emerges.”

Henry said she welcomes those efforts. “There’s a lot of really innovative people out there who we’ve been connecting with. We have a whole group at the ministry who are validating each individual donation or offer of help.”

The province announced last week that it has partnered with the Digital Technology Supercluster and the Business Council of B.C. to create the COVID-19 Supply Hub, an online platform to co-ordinate, source and expedite medical supplies and personal protective equipment, with information on the types and specifications of critical supplies needed.

Companies looking to offer support or supplies through the COVID-19 Supply Hub can contact it at: gov.bc.ca/supplyhub.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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