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USM professor, two Maine students prototype face shields to safeguard front-line medical personnel treating COVID-19 patients

Dr. Asheesh Lanba and USM students Berkeley Elias and Daniel Madison St Peter in USM's MIST lab.

Two undergraduate mechanical engineering students at the University of Southern Maine may not earn any extra credit for a volunteer research project they completed last week, but they have the satisfaction of knowing their efforts could help save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Asheesh Lanba, assistant professor of mechanical engineering (left), and sophomore mechanical engineering majors Berkeley Elias (center) and Daniel Madison St Peter have used 3D printers in USM's Maker Innovation STudio to build face shield prototypes for front-line health-care providers in the fight against COVID-19. (Zach Boyce/USM Public Affairs)

Led by USM Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Asheesh Lanba, mechanical engineering majors Berkeley Elias of Portland and Daniel Madison St Peter of Windham have prototyped 28 face shields using 3D printers in the University’s Maker Innovation STudio (MIST) located on the Portland campus and at the John Mitchell Center (JMC) in Gorham. And those prototypes — produced in less than 36 hours — have been sent to out-of-state healthcare professionals at the front lines of fighting the COVID-19 crisis, where the need is greatest.

Lanba said the project was launched two weeks ago, when USM was approached by staff at Maine Medical Center in Portland about the possibility of producing alternatives to personal protective equipment, also known as PPE, to support hospitals outside of Maine that are facing critical shortages.

“We had already been doing some prototyping work for Maine Medical on other devices,” said Lanba, who is in his first year at USM. “When I brought Maine Medical Center’s request to my undergraduate Lasers and Materials Engineering (LAME) research group in search of volunteers, I was delighted that Berkeley and Daniel raised their hands to help with the effort.”

For Elias, the research project was a welcome opportunity to “help out and not just watch this public health crisis from the sidelines.”

USM student Berkeley Elias makes a face shield.

USM sophomore mechanical engineering major Berkeley Elias of Portland, Maine, works with one of the 3D printers in USM's MIST lab to fabricate a face shield prototype. (Zach Boyce/USM Public Affairs)

“I had seen videos of other 3D printing communities doing similar things,” said Elias, who held a work-study position in the MIST lab prior to the closure of campus to all but critical personnel in late March. “It was great to have the chance to bring my experience in the lab to this urgent project.”

St Peter said he chose to participate because he wanted to send a message to people “on the front lines” of treating those stricken with COVID-19.

“I want them to know they’re not alone,” said St Peter. “This fight against COVID-19 is all of our fight. The only way we’re going to succeed is if we work together. I hope that what we’re doing inspires people to do whatever they can in this fight — even if that just means staying at home. All our efforts make a difference.”

Daniel Madison St Peter consults with Dr. Asheesh Landba about the construction of a face shield prototype.

USM sophomore mechanical engineering major Daniel Madison St Peter of Windham, Maine, consults with Dr. Asheesh Landba about the construction of a face shield prototype. (Zach Boyce/USM Public Affairs)

Working with a widely available, open-source face-shield design, Lanba, Elias, and St Peter first calculated the optimal production workflow on the 3D printers, to make all the parts as quickly and efficiently as possible.

To make the prototypes, Lanba, Elias, and St Peter used in-house materials, as well as material donated by Thermoformed Plastics of New England (TPNE) located in Biddeford.

“The fight against the pandemic has to be collaborative,” said Lanba. “We are working to collaborate with local companies to help overcome the equipment shortage healthcare professionals are facing. For example, TPNE helped us out with material, and we have provided them with multiple 3D-printed prototypes of their designs for evaluation for mass production.”

Lanba said the urgency of the need motivated them to work past midnight and before dawn late last week. Elias and St Peter managed to keep up with their class assignments and even complete take-home exams while building the prototypes.

“This is a true measure of their dedication,” said Lanba of Elias and St Peter. “They took turns finishing their take-home exams so one of them could always be working on the project.”

Asked how it feels to be part of solving the PPE shortage, Lanba said, “There’s been no time to process that. I really haven’t thought about that at all.”

Dr. Asheesh Lanba monitors a 3D printer in USM's MIST lab as a face shield prototype materializes.

Dr. Asheesh Lanba, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, monitors a 3D printer in USM's MIST lab as a face shield prototype materializes. (Zach Boyce/USM Public Affairs)

Perhaps that’s because the trio are already on to the next potentially life-saving engineering challenge: how to more rapidly fabricate PPE through thermoforming — a manufacturing process in which a plastic sheet is heated to pliability and formed to spec in a mold.

The prototypes they developed in USM’s MIST lab could be used to build a mold for thermoforming production. That research project, said Lanba, will likely be undertaken in collaboration with Composites Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) on the USM campus.

“We have been engaged by the larger engineering, manufacturing and healthcare community in Maine,” said Lanba. “Around two weeks ago when the situation started getting bad in the major cities around the country, the Maine Emergency Management Agency formed a committee composed of University of Maine System, local companies and healthcare professionals, and this group has been crucial for the networking necessary to pull off this effort.”

Dr. Jeremy Qualls, professor of physics and dean of USM’s College of Science, Technology, and Health, said the partnership is a demonstration of the prototyping capability of the new MIST lab, directed by Dr. So Young Han in the University’s Michael E. Dubyak Center for Digital Science and Innovation.

USM is also working with a number of other community partners on developing PPE to aid hospitals during the nationwide shortage, said Qualls. Dr. Jim Masi, adjunct professor of engineering at USM, Han and Lanba are collaborating with Arcadia Designworks of Portland on a next-generation design of masks. And Han is coordinating the efforts of USM faculty, the Perloff Foundation, Portland Rotary Club, local community colleges, and local makers to explore emerging prototypes and vet existing models available in the maker community.

“USM faculty and students are actively looking to help the community and offer innovative solutions to the devastating COVID-19 pandemic that’s impacting us in many unexpected ways. Dr. Lanba’s work demonstrates exactly that.” said Qualls. “He and others are exploring PPE designs and utilizing the capabilities of USM’s Maker Innovation STudio to develop new prototypes. I’m so pleased that this work that could ultimately save lives around the world has its origins in Maine and at USM.”

Some of the finished prototypes, ready for delivery.

Some of the finished prototypes, ready for delivery and to help front-line health-care providers stay safe while treating patients with COVID-19. (Zach Boyce/USM Public Affairs)

St Peter said that as an aspiring engineer, he looks forward to the faster-production, thermomolding phase of the face-shield project.

“Being an engineer is about solving problems — in this case it’s about helping to solve a health-care crisis,” he said. “Whatever the issue, engineers are at the basis of every solution. That’s what keeps me motivated.”

— Story by Marc Glass, USM Public Affairs