University of Nevada, Las Vegas Engineers Answer the Medical Community's Call for PPE to Protect Themselves from COVID-19

Health care providers across the Las Vegas Valley were facing an unprecedented challenge, worsened by a lack of supplies to protect themselves. Could the UNLV College of Engineering use their skills and facilities to help fill the gap for personal protection equipment (PPE)? The call from the medical community came in late March, and by the first week of April UNLV had already delivered their first face shields and began fabrication on a microscope shield for ophthalmologists.

Las Vegas, NV, April 19, 2020 --( Typically at this time of the spring semester, engineering labs would be filled with faculty and graduate assistants working on research projects, student groups gathering to design their next rocket or robot, and Senior Design teams making the final tweaks to the prototypes for their capstone competition.

But in mid-March all the plasma cutters, 3D printers, gas gun and more sat idle as COVID-19 shelter-in-place restrictions quieted the campus.

Health care providers across the Las Vegas Valley, however, were facing an unprecedented challenge, worsened by a lack of supplies to protect themselves. Could the UNLV College of Engineering turn the machines back on and help fill the gap for personal protection equipment (PPE), such as face shields? The college put together a task force including Associate Dean Mohamed Trabia, Mechanical Engineering Chair Brendan O’toole, and Mechanical Engineering Distinguished Professor Kwang Kim.

“We talked about a few design options and (assessed) what raw materials we would need,” explained Kim. “All of us felt that what was taking place in New York could also happen in our community, and if we had the opportunity to help, we absolutely should.”

A face shield, at its most basic, is a piece of clear, nonporous plastic which covers and protects the user’s eyes, nose, and mouth from coming into direct contact with bodily fluids, like saliva droplets, that may contain the COVID-19 virus. They’re designed to be worn in conjunction with a face mask.

Some of the immediate challenges included sourcing the right material, since much was on backorder throughout the country, according to Kim, who is heading up the college’s efforts.

“I was lucky to find some raw materials that would work and could be delivered in the first week of April,” Kim said. “We produced our first prototype on April 3rd.”

And the team would need to act rapidly to plan, design and execute a solution and get it to local caregivers. Their design had to be simple and functional, not fancy or stylish.

The team added mechanical engineering doctorate student Justin Neubauer and postdoctoral researcher Taeseon Hwang, and came up with a seemingly simple three-part design. They used a 0.015” polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or polycarbonate (PC) film for the shield; polyethylene foam cubes attached to the film to rest against the wearer’s head; and an elastic band fed through holes in the plastic to attach to the head.

In Kim’s Active Materials & Smart Living Lab (AMSL), the team scaled up quickly, using a CAD program to draw the initial design, and a laser system including software to define the toolpath and a laser cutter/engraver.

They churned out 15 to 20 face shields a day, packaging them in zip locked, dated bags with assembly instructions.

As of April 13, 174 face shields had been produced by the UNLV team and distributed to caregivers in the community, including Sunrise Medical Center, Dignity Health Clinics and UNLV Medical School. The team will continue making face shields as long as the necessary materials are available.

Customizing a Solution for Ophthalmologists
While the college’s design worked for most medical professionals, one of the college’s medical partners Shepherd Eye Center noted some special challenges for the optometrists.

Peter Faught, experimental testing/prototype engineer in the college’s Civil and Environmental Engineering and Construction department stepped in to make a prototype specific to their needs.

“Solving problems is what drives engineers in normal times, so I feel we have an obligation to lead the charge in troubled times,” Fraught said.

Instead of being worn, this 1/8-inch acrylic shield has two circles cut out so it can attach directly to the slit lamp microscope that optometrists use to examine the structures fo the eye.

After meeting again with Shepherd and confirming that the prototype would in fact work, Peter and Terry Kell, mechanical engineering model designer/machinist, began production. The team worked with Piedmont Plastics to get the blank plastic sheets cut using a pattern designed with SOLIDWORKS software. Then, in UNLV’s Mendenhall Innovation & Design Laboratory, they cut the holes for the microscope eye pieces.

Fifty shields are being made for Shepherd, but Peter and Terry stand ready to assist others as needed.

“While our primary focus must be solving the problems facing our first responders, as engineers we need to be in the lead developing self-distancing safeguards that will help everyone in what experts say will be our new normal,” Faught said.
UNLV College of Engineering
Cheryl Bella
While working remotely, telephone is 702-499-3930