Iowa Western faces the need for PPE
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Iowa Western faces the need for PPE

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While health care workers in the United States plead for personal protective equipment, a group of faculty, staff, students and volunteers at Iowa Western Community College are doing what they can to help.

The group is taking materials from several different sources, creating headbands and assembling face shields for use by area frontline workers in the battle against COVID-19. So far, they have finished about 240 shields.

The college received five new 3-D printers in March, Industrial Technology Dean Matt Mancuso said, and pulled some machines from the graphic arts department, computer lab and other places around campus into the room with the new ones to create a 3-D printing lab.

“We were planning to set up a little makerspace for next fall,” he said.

Then Reagan Pufall, art and graphic arts instructor, talked to someone involved in PPE for NE, a Nebraska-based organization that makes personal protective equipment with 3-D printers.

“I was really surprised that 3-D printers could be useful for this,” he said.

Pufall thought that would be a good way to use Iowa Western’s new 3-D printers, which would otherwise sit idle all summer. He decided to get production cranked up at the college.

PPE for NE provided some discs for the printers, some clear plastic and some rubber bands, and Pufall and Iowa Western donated spools of the plastic filament the 3-D printers melt and form into the desired shape, he said.

In this case, the printers are used to make the curved framework that holds the clear plastic, and the rubber bands are used to hold the frame on the user’s head (elastic bands would ordinarily be used but are hard to get right now). The plastic headbands are formed in stacks of six, which are then separated and sanded on the edge that will be against the user’s head.

“These particular things are for splatter protection,” he said. “When they test someone for COVID-19, they stick an eight-inch Q-Tip in their nasal cavity. A lot of people sneeze.”

Pufall, industrial technology lab assistant Mike Parkhurst, two AmeriCorps volunteers and a few students still staying on campus started producing the face shields about two weeks ago. It takes about six or seven hours to make one stack, Pufall said. With seven or more printers going, the group can make about 50 per day. However, 3-D printers sometimes get jammed or break down — much like conventional printers do.

“The problem is we can’t produce them fast enough,” he said.

On Sunday, they delivered the first 130 to PPE for NE in Omaha, Pufall said.

“When we get ready to disinfect them, we put on gloves and masks,” he said. “They do the final round of disinfecting and bagging, and then they deliver them to hospitals around the metro.”

While it is possible to make masks with 3-D printers, they are not as well suited for that, Pufall said.

“The medical people hate those,” he said. “They will work for a while, but they’re just incredibly uncomfortable.”

Besides having the hard plastic against their faces for an extended period of time, the user must breathe through a small hole, Pufall said. And the mask is of no use unless one also acquires the medical-grade filters that are the key component, which can’t be made on a 3-D printer.

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