How Texas A&M Is Using 3D Printing To Respond To Coronavirus
At home in Brownsville after classes were cancelled following Spring Break due to the coronavirus, second-year Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy graduate student Humberto Ramos saw online one day that people could use 3D printers to make critically-needed personal protective equipment.
Ramos, an enthusiast who owns four 3D printers, got to work. The setup was easy, Ramos said. With help from Internet forums and a design approved by the NIH 3D Print Exchange and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, he quickly printed a face shield prototype. Essentially a plastic band placed around the forehead with notches to place a transparent plastic sheet to cover the user’s face, 44 of the shields were produced by Ramos within a few days and sent to a hospital in Harlingen where his brother works.
Ramos sent another 25 to a hospital in Brownsville, and another dozen to a clinic in San Antonio that reached out to him after seeing a post about his results on social media.
“It’s made better use of my hobby skills to be able to give back to the community,” Ramos said. “I have some spare time to be printing things like this and sending them to hospitals and people in need.”
He’s just one of many lab technicians, engineers, innovators and makers across Texas A&M University who have mobilized to address the grave shortage of lifesaving medical supplies and devices during the COVID-19 pandemic by devising products to keep health care workers safe from infection.
Often using crowdsourced designs, 3D printers have proved to be useful tools in this effort for both hobbyists like Ramos and the engineers and technicians who use them in labs across the College Station campus.
“One of the best things about 3D printing is how fast you can rapid prototype something,” said Thomas George, supervisor of the MakerPlace at the College of Architecture. “If there’s some little change you need, you can just change it in the model, do another test print and see if it works, allowing you to iterate on designs really quickly.”
At the MakerPlace, all students are able to use the roughly 40 3D printers or get help with vinyl or laser cutting for projects. George said that 3D printing builds up layer upon layer, similar to decorating a cake, dispensing layers of molten plastic filaments based on a graphic model of the object being printed. It’s similar to slicing an image into 1,000 pieces and stacking them up until a 3D object is formed, he said.
“With as many printers as we have, it’s really easy once you figure out what file you need,” George said. “You can put [the file] on all the machines, run them for an hour, start another batch and do it over and over.”
So when an emergency room doctor at a regional hospital contacted a former College of Architecture employee saying they didn’t have access to face shields, George and Jim Titus, who runs the college’s woodshop, started to look at prototypes already available online to see if they could manufacture them.
George and Titus quickly made 30 prototypes based on an existing design. College of Architecture Executive Associate Dean Dawn Jourdan said the first small run of face shields was sent to the medical professional for field testing, and the design was tweaked based on their feedback. The college has since been asked to make more of the shields, and plans to manufacture between 3,200 and 3,500 for health care professionals and first responders.
“[3D printing] is a quick way to prototype a project,” Jourdan said. “It’s the perfect engine to accelerate invention and production once we get it right.”
The Texas A&M College of Engineering has also stepped into the breach, with engineers and innovators working to place thousands of medical devices and personal protective equipment in the hands of patients, doctors and nurses.
“[3D printing] is a quick way to prototype a project. It’s the perfect engine to accelerate invention and production once we get it right.”
A team led by Michael R. Moreno, an assistant professor in the J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of innovation for Engineering Medicine, has manufactured 3D-printed spacers for metered dose inhalers for Houston Methodist Hospital, which had been facing a critical shortage of the devices.
In less than a week, Moreno’s team was able to manufacture 200 of the spacers, which allows doctors to use inhalers to treat COVID-19 patients who do not yet need ventilator therapy. Bronchodilator drugs that help patients breathe would typically be administered using nebulizers. But because this could aerosolize the virus, inhalers are the preferred method of delivery for the medicine. Inhalers require precise timing of inhalation for proper delivery to the lungs, and the spacers help patients draw in the entire dose of medication.
Houston Methodist Hospital recently ordered another 200 spacers.
The project resulted from Texas A&M’s Engineering Medicine (EnMed) collaboration with Houston Methodist Hospital, which helps students earn degrees in engineering and medicine in a blended four-year graduate program.
“The EnMed relationship and having engineers embedded down in Houston meant that we were right next to the doctors as they needed help, and if they had questions, then it was a matter of, ‘Well, can we make it?’” said David Staack, director of engineering laboratory instruction. “For a lot of them, the answer has been yes.”
3D printing is just one method of advanced manufacturing in the college’s toolbox. For the Baylor College of Medicine, the college used a water jet cutter and CNC router to produce 3,000 face shields to protect students, residents and doctors. Staack said the shields are worn over face masks to allow medical professionals to extend the life of an N95 respirator. Houston Methodist Hospital and MD Anderson Cancer Center will each receive 1,000 of the face shields, as well.
For MD Anderson, the college is using a different type of design that requires 3D printing. Staack said it will take about four weeks to print all 1,000 shields.
“It’s a little tricky because not only is there a shortage of face shields now, but there’s also a shortage of materials to make face shields from,” Staack said. “We’ve got about seven staff who have been marked as essential workers and are working in shifts in our design center to rapidly produce these materials.”
Additionally, 550 comfort straps — a small piece of plastic that takes the strain off of the ears of health care professionals wearing masks when the straps or rubber bands are placed on the plastic — were produced for Houston Methodist Hospital and UT Southwestern Medical Center.
Also for MD Anderson, the College of Engineering is producing 20 isolation chambers that can be placed around patients during intubation or other activities where their breathing is being isolated. Staack said the shields put the patient in an enclosed environment that keeps the virus from being released into the room. The apparatus involves a mixture of 3D-printed materials, CNC cut vinyl and hand assembly. Several of these isolation chambers are also being donated to the labor and delivery department at Houston Methodist.
“It’s something which before COVID-19, didn’t really exist significantly, so it’s really something that’s been invented to help doctors in this situation,” Staack said.
That project also resulted from Moreno, Associate Dean for Research Yoseff Elabd, CEO of Engineering Health Roderic Pettigrew and other faculty working alongside medical professionals. Staack said the designs were a collaboration between faculty, doctors and students, an example of how the collaboration has helped solve problems during the COVID-19 crisis.
“If you were to take a doctor to a 3D printing studio, he doesn’t necessarily know what he’s doing,” Staack said. “So this is a good collaboration in that sense, where manufacturing is part of what engineering does. Designing apparatus and figuring out who can get them built and then in some of these cases how to get them built.”
Media contact: Caitlin Clark, firstname.lastname@example.org