USM mechanical engineering students Berkeley Elias of Portland and Daniel Madison St. Peter of Windham work on face shields in the university’s 3D printing lab. The masks will be given to out-of-state healthcare professionals responding to the coronavirus outbreak. Courtesy / University of Southern Maine

PORTLAND — When University of Southern Maine undergraduate mechanical engineering major Berkley Elias first heard about the havoc the coronavirus was causing nationwide, he figured he could best do his part by sheltering in place. Then, last month, Maine Medical Center approached USM about producing protective equipment to help hospitals facing a shortage.

Elias, a work study student at USM’s Maker Innovation Studio, knew he could do more to help.

Two University of Southern Maine sophomores are working with their professor to create face shields made from plastic from Thermoformed Plastics of New England in Biddeford. Courtesy / University of Southern Maine

“Before I thought the best thing I could do is stay at home, but now, it seems, the best thing I can do is go in once in a while and help by using the 3D printer,” said Elias, a Portland resident.

In late March, Elias and fellow USM sophomore Daniel St. Peter of Windham teamed up with assistant professor of mechanical engineering Asheesh Lanba to produce prototype plastic face shields using 3D printing technology.

“They came to it from the same perspective I did. They wanted to help out and transfer some of their in-class learning into real life good,” Lanba said.

The students knew that many hospitals were running out of personal protective equipment, which was vital in treating patients with the highly contagious coronavirus.

“Being engineers, we believe our main purpose is to look at problems and find solutions,” St. Peter said. “We want to do our part and we want people on the front lines to know they are not alone. These products we are creating will not only save their lives, but others as well.”

Close to 30 of the prototype shields were made during the initial phase, 20 of which were sent to a hospital in Maryland.

“As of right now, Maine Medical Center doesn’t have a shortage of PPE, at least not in terms of requests for us,” Lanba said Monday.

St. Peter said it takes a 3D printer three to six hours to make one shield, but that can be reduced to just 10 minutes to produce five with thermoforming, a process in which plastic is heated to make it pliable enough to be shaped.

Elias said the goal now is to continue to work on prototypes to give to manufacturing companies, such as Thermoformed Plastics of New England, to use for mass production. The Biddeford-based business, which provided some of the plastic used for the face shields, has set a goal of creating 600,000 shields for first responders and medical professionals in southern Maine and New Hampshire.

“We are prototyping designs, making them better and seeing how we can manufacture more of them quicker. That has been the goal for the last week or so,” Elias said.

“It’s been a huge learning process and a lot of trial and error because there is no exact science behind it,” St. Peter said Friday before heading to the lab to continue working on designs.

Lanba said the students, who are not receiving pay or academic credit for the effort, will continue to make shields as they are needed.

The lab has enough material to make 50-100 face shields. He is looking to get in touch with hospitals, either locally or across the country, that may have a need.

“We know there is a need and we know that need is going to continue to grow,” St. Peter said.

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