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Online class collaboration is turning out real PPE for first responders during the pandemic

  • Jonathan Frey looks over a freshly printed visor portion of a face shield
    And boom! The design evolves:  Jonathan Frey looks over a freshly printed visor portion of a face shield during an online class he hosted from the Swem Library makerspace. The initiative is capable of producing nearly 70 face shields each day.  Screen capture
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An entrepreneurial, engineering-based mindset allowed one William & Mary class to make a real contribution to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic during its second week of online instruction.

Jonathan Frey hosted a Zoom session of his Introduction to Engineering Design from the makerspace in Swem Library. He gave his students an assignment: design a face shield to help protect first responders and medical professionals from the COVID-19 virus.

“I told the students that companies said it took them three days to design the face shields, and kudos to them,” Frey said. “So, they as students should strive to be able to do it in a single class session.”

And so they did. Frey divided the class of 20 into three groups. Each group hammered out a design for a face shield visor using Autodesk Fusion 360 software, the individuals of each team working apart from their teammates, connected by Zoom.

Frey told them to be ready to present their designs at 10:30 a.m. While the students worked, Frey paced past the ten 3-D printers in the Swem makerspace that he had programmed to render out a couple dozen face shield visors from a design downloaded from corporate 3D printing partner Airwolf 3D.

The pandemic has created a near-bottomless need for masks, gowns, face shields and other PPE — personal protective equipment. Frey wanted to get a start on production, as the face shields produced by the class are intended for use by the William & Mary Police and the many other requests that have been coming into the makerspaces.

Frey estimated that he could probably produce nearly 70 face shields a day, using the makerspaces in Swem Library and Small Hall. “A very rough estimate is that each of these shields has maybe a dollar in materials, and having a large number of 3D printers gets our average production time down to about 10 minutes per visor” he added.

 The effort generated wide support and interest across the university community and several members of the university community dropped into the Swem makerspace via Zoom to check out the activity.

“We’ve been getting a lot of requests from students who want to be able to contribute, to do something,” said Lisa Nickel, associate dean of research and public services at Swem. “But we can’t have students in the building, so it’s a challenge. Jonathan was able to pivot his class, to have his students try to design and produce something really quickly.”

Frey is the makerspace director in William & Mary’s Department of Applied Science. He was teaching from the makerspace in the mostly deserted, recently disinfected Swem Library.

“I was able to get in here,” he said. “And knock on wood, all the printers turned on.”

Frey gave the student teams a 15-minute warning and showed an Airwolf3D face shield model, fresh off a printer. “We’re going to do some of these, and then switch to the student designs so that the students get that practical experience,” he said. “

He explained that the visor or headpiece is the design challenge for the shield, which is the first line of facial defense against a sneeze or cough.

“You attach a clear piece of plastic to the visor right here,” he explained. “It goes over top of your mask and it protects you from sprayback.”

The shield itself is the easy part, he said. He added that the class will produce some models designed for disposable plastic shields, while others will have permanent shields.

Frey said that the visor, or headpiece, is a deceptively simple piece of PPE. “It has to hold the shield itself, of course,” he said. “And it has to be comfortable — that’s the hard part.”

To increase the comfort level of the face shields, Frey said assembly will include a band of forehead-cushioning foam. He added that he will use the laser cutter in the Small Hall makerspace to make the foam strips.

“Jonathan, why go to all that trouble?” asked Tina Naik, over Zoom. She is the teaching assistant for the class and a Ph.D. student in applied science, working in Christopher Del Negro’s lab. “Why don’t you just use foam tape?”

“Excellent suggestion!” Frey said, brandishing the Airwolf3D visor. “And boom! The design evolves!”

Ashley Gonzales, Swem’s makerspace coordinator, was also Zooming in, waiting for the class design reports. (“I miss my printers!” she said. “I haven’t seen them in two weeks.”) Gonzales said the 3D printers under her care see plenty of use, even when there’s not a pandemic.

“A lot of undergraduates use them for research,” she said. “The vertebrate biology class came in and printed these turtle shells that they dropped to see how well they held up. Architecture classes. Jonathan’s classes use them a lot.”

Frey called “time” on the design teams, bringing the 20 students back from their Zoom breakout groups. He called on each group to select a presenter. The first design was presented by Fred Nunnelley ’22. He showed off his team’s offering, pivoting the drawing to and fro, using Zoom’s screen-share function, describing the rationale behind the design.

“On the back we added the tabs over here with extrusions on the top and front on each side for the rubber bands to allow it to attach on the back and in the center and on the far sides,” he explained. “We added small, like square tabs with hooks upwards so that they could use a hole punch and just set the shield on top of the three tabs.”

The other two teams presented their work in similar manner, with explanations coming from Philip Ignatoff ’23 and Mary Peterson ’22.

After the class session was over and all the students Zoomed out, Frey continued production. He chatted with a series of virtual visitors from the university community, answering questions about the initiative, backed by a near-musical chorus of boops, clicks and whirs from the array of printers patiently producing the Airwolf3D-design visors.

“Two of the three student designs are good enough to use,” he said. “The third is almost there.” He said he would switch production to a student-designed model after the current runs of visors were finished.

Frey set up a table to begin assembly. He looked up and smiled wryly when a Zooming-in visitor asked if he had figured out a way to task his students with assembling the face shields over the internet.

The assembly table featured another piece of makerspace engineering ingenuity. Frey had a stack of nearly opaque plastic laminating material. He ran one of the letter-sized sheets through the laminator, then held it up and looked through it. Voila! — a face shield.

“This stuff is cheap and completely transparent,” he said. “You try to buy something like this right now, you’ll find that the supply lines are a little tight. And I have three boxes of this stuff in my cabinet anyways.”

He finished assembling a set face shields, then signed out of Zoom, leaving the printer chorus to whir and boop to each other.

“I’m going to walk this first batch over to the William & Mary Police Department,” he said as he left.