LOWELL — Students in UMass Lowell’s 3-D Printing Club are using technology at their fingertips to produce protective gear for front-line workers in the fight against COVID-19.
The effort is allowing the students to put their education to work to solve a critical problem in the community. The project, which started small in March, is now a 24-7 operation and has already produced hundreds of masks, face shields and “ear-savers” — straps that wrap behind the wearer’s head to hold masks in place — for local health-care workers.
“So far, we’ve donated more than 300 ear-savers to Mass. General Hospital, 250 to St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua and smaller quantities to Lowell General Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital,” said Molly Teece of Methuen, the club’s co-founder and co-president and a Plastics Engineering major. “We also hope to donate to Holy Family Hospital in Methuen and MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham.”
Leading the initiative with Teece are club co-president and co-founder David Barry, a Plastics Engineering major from Amherst, N.H., and Biomedical Engineering major Ethan Chen of Nashua, N.H. While there are more than 30 members in the student-run group, social-distancing guidelines have prohibited all of them from participating together in the same workspace, although other club members often donate materials for the project, according to Teece.
The three students own 3-D printers, which allowed them to start producing the essential gear from home as UMass Lowell transitioned to a remote learning and work environment earlier this spring. The students began by downloading prototypes of personal protective equipment, or PPE, and started printing face masks. It took the team four hours to produce each mask.
“We started making supplies to help our family and friends who work in hospitals and other front-line occupations,” Barry said, adding that “3D printing is an important manufacturing technology and we’re happy that it’s finally gaining mainstream traction and seen as something more than a toy or hobby.”
Though the work was slow going, the students were not discouraged. Promoting the initiative and connecting with friends and family on social media created a groundswell of enthusiasm; ideas for equipment and donations started to flow. The students were shocked by the support, according to Teece.
“I thought that maybe we’d raise about $60 but couldn’t believe it when our contacts — and people we didn’t even know — contributed more $2,000,” she said.
The money enabled them to buy another 3-D printer. Two more of the printers, provided by Semcasting, Inc., of North Andover, brought the team’s total to six, enabling the students to manufacture items around the clock.
Semcasting Chief Financial Officer Clinton Carney, a UMass Lowell graduate and faculty member in the university’s Manning School of Business, facilitated the company’s donation after speaking with Teece and being impressed by the students’ professionalism and commitment, he said.
To meet greater demand and save time, the students updated their approach to produce face shields and ear-savers. The team decided to move in that direction after hearing from health-care workers that the elastic loops on many masks irritate wearers’ ears.
Operating at full capacity, the students make about 40 face shields and 80 ear-savers a day and are working directly with local health-care providers. The group is not taking requests from the public.
“It’s really humbling to be a part of this project,” Teece said. “I really hope that not only are we able to help as many people as possible but also inspire others through our story by spreading the message that everyone has the power to make a difference if they put their mind to it.”