Local engineers help fill mask, shield gap - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Local engineers help fill mask, shield gap

April 27th, 2020 development
Local engineers help fill mask, shield gap

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Chandler engineers are using their technical skills to innovatively produce vast numbers of masks and shields for health care workers battling COVID-19.

As the number of cases rises in Arizona, hospitals and nursing homes are preparing for a potential shortage in protective gear needed to keep staff safe while caring for infected patients.

Some Chandler engineers are attempting to streamline the manufacturing by generating cost-efficient designs of the equipment.

Patrick Milligan has developed a relatively simple process for assembling face shields that requires few materials and basic knowledge of how to work a laser-cutter.

Known as the “Chandler Shield,” Milligan’s design is nothing more than a plastic sheet three-hole-punched onto a foam visor with an elastic band tied around the back. They can be produced, used and disposed of rapidly, Milligan said, adding that his design helps an industry racing to catch up with a sudden demand for supplies.

It’s not meant to outright replace the protective gear doctors are accustomed to using, Milligan stressed, but the Chandler Shield can still provide some protection.

“If they have nothing left, this is better than nothing,” he said.

Milligan is part of a group of engineers from across the Valley that’s been volunteering their time to manufacture hundreds of masks for doctors and nurses.

The Arizona chapter of Open Source COVID-19 Medical Supplies has quickly amassed more than 300 members who can operate 3-D printers, sewing machines and laser cutters.

Recently, some members met up at Engrave My Memories in Chandler and used Milligan’s template to assemble and sanitize 169 face shields. They were all packaged and distributed by the end of a weekend.

Marcos Garciaacosta, an engineer at Chandler’s Northrop Grumman campus, organizes the OSCMS group and keeps track of all the destinations of his members’ gear.    

“It’s kind of like herding cats,” he joked.

Garciaacosta said they’re trying to serve other populations who continue to have daily, face-to-face contact with the public but may not be a top priority for receiving donated personal protective equipment.

“There’s a huge need for PPE in the homeless shelters,” he said. “There’s a huge need for PPE in rehab clinics.”

His group has been contacting Arizona’s tribal communities and is now sending face shields to doctors working on nearby reservations.

The Navajo Nation in the northwest corner of Arizona has seen its number of COVID-19 cases jump significantly in the last couple weeks.

The OSCMS chapter has already sent out a few dozen face shields to the Navajo Nation, Garciaacosta added, and is actively communicating with other tribal hospitals in need of gear.

Garciaacosta, a Seton Catholic Preparatory graduate, said his years of education and training as an engineer have conditioned him to seek out new solutions for a complex predicament.

“If I see a problem, I know it can be fixed,” he said.

It bothered Garciaacosta to repeatedly read about supply shortages and knew there was a community of resourceful people who could help fill the gap.

Engineers are always searching for optimization and innovation, he added, so they’d be great at introducing fresh ideas that could remedy this national crisis. 

“Our members are trying to constantly come up with a solution to make things better,” Garciaacosta said.

Patrick Milligan said he’s been impressed by how members have been creatively experimenting with new materials and prototypes to find a mask-making process that can produce large volumes in a short amount of time.

“It’s like a new renaissance of designing and building this gear,” he said

Though the OSCMS group has accomplished a lot in a few short weeks, its members are hopeful they won’t be needed in the near future.

The big corporations and manufacturers need to do more to fill this supply gap, Garciaacosta said, because it’s not sustainable to rely on a bunch of volunteers to laser-cut shields.

The group has already experienced problems finding enough materials to keep producing, Garciaacosta said, and that may get even harder as supply chains continue to be interrupted by the global pandemic.

“I honestly hope we just don’t have to keep on doing this,” he said. “We should not be depending on the PPE that we’re making. It’s just not right.”

The OSCMS group is accepting monetary donations to help purchase materials through a page on GoFundMe.com.