Penn State ARL engineers partner with Mount Nittany Health surgeon to rapidly design PPE

June 03, 2020
8 min read


In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Penn State formed the Manufacturing and Sterilization for COVID-19 (MASC) Initiative, “focused on designing and delivering rapidly scalable solutions and generating tangible impact,” especially within Pennsylvania. Penn State’s Applied Research Lab (ARL), reached out to the MASC Initiative with an offer to help.

Tim Simpson of MASC asked Charlie Tricou, the Head of ARL’s Lifecycle Engineering Department, to develop a 3-D printed face shield to address potential need, and to buy time for local manufacturers to design, tool-up, and produce enough face shields to meet a possible surge. Mount Nittany Health, especially Upendra Thaker, MD, associate chief medical officer for the system and clinical officer, surgical and specialty services, Mount Nittany Physician Group quickly became a partner in the design. Charlie felt a palpable sense of urgency, that first week or two of the pandemic.  “In the back of your mind you’re thinking, every day people who need this don’t have it, lives are impacted,” shared Charlie.

Face shields provide a physical barrier to droplets caused by coughing or sneezing and are an important piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) for infection prevention. They consist of a headband that wraps around the forehead, an attached, clear plastic visor that covers the face, and an elastic band that goes around the back of the head, keeping the device in place.

ARL and Penn State have many 3-D printers that could be used to print the headbands, as do many other universities, businesses, and hobbyists. ARL wanted a face shield design that, given a 3-D printed headband, almost anybody could complete. Prusa Printers had recently released a 3-D printed face shield design for small build-plates, which ARL used as a starting point. The original headband had four pins across the forehead, to which a polycarbonate shield attached via four oval-shaped holes.

The basic Prusa design was serviceable, but it took nearly 3 hours to print the headband and because of the oval-shaped holes, the polycarbonate shield needed to be cut with a CNC machine or laser-cutter. “Two days after the Prusa design was released, thin polycarbonate started to disappear,” shared Charlie.

ARL redesigned the way the visor attached to the headband to be compatible with other materials and to utilize three round pins and holes to connect, spacing them so that a 3-hole punch could be used to create the holes and eliminate the need for a CNC machine or laser cutter. Binder covers or clear acetate transparencies could be used for the visor and could easily be sourced. This would keep the product low-cost and accessible.

In about 4 days (many of which were 16-17 hours long, as they were working on other PPE projects during that time as well), the team had a design they were happy with.

ARL’s website homepage states that it must maintain, “an operational agility to meet ever-changing requirements.” Charlie attested that this type of ingenuity is pretty much business as usual for his team. “Though the urgency for sure is different,” he added. Normally, his team contracts for research and development projects that span 1-2 years, not a couple of days. And the department has not worked with the healthcare industry before; they mostly design equipment and processes for shipyards and maintenance depots.

Charlie had been in contact with Simon Corby, executive director, Mount Nittany Health Foundation, who agreed to pick up some samples. “I walked him through it standing six feet apart outside in a parking lot with a cross breeze,” Charlie said chuckling. Dr. Thaker then reviewed the samples and worked with the ARL team to make a couple of tweaks.

Dr. Thaker asked ARL to eliminate the nooks and crannies in the headband design, which could be harder to clean and house coronavirus. Joe Bartolai and Daniel Spillane of ARL modified the basic Prusa design, eliminating these spaces and reducing print speed by about 45 minutes.  Nate Siegel of Bucknell University did the same for a larger version of the headband. 

“Charlie and his team provided several prototypes for our input and ultimately provided Mount Nittany with components needed to make face shields,” Dr. Thaker shared. “Their concern for the community and healthcare providers was clearly evident. It is heartwarming to know that we live and work in a community where we have such overwhelming support and commitment for the healthcare providers.”

Charlie reiterated that sentiment, pointing out there are numerous other stories throughout our community of people who leveraged their available talent and resources to help through, what he calls, “small acts of heroism.”

So far the Lifecycle Engineering Department at Penn State’s ARL has donated 350 headbands, 250 to Mount Nittany Health and another 100 to a nursing home. The team also has publically shared the template so that anyone with a 3-D printer can produce the headband and anyone with access to binder covers or acetate transparencies, a three-hole punch, and elastic or rubber bands can complete the face shield.

And that’s what Charlie seems to be most proud of: the accessibility and empowerment. For instance, the nursing home director had serious concerns about how they would protect their staff and patients. Charlie immediately agreed to print headbands, and also suggested she send a company-wide email asking if anybody associated with her organization had, or knew someone who had, a 3-D printer. He recommended she buy binder covers and sewing elastic or rubber bands. He quickly explained how she could easily, swiftly, and inexpensively pull together the resources to provide an essential piece of PPE.

“This goes beyond me being able to print something. I enabled her. I gave her the tools to help herself. And that was incredible,” Charlie said. His team has not only empowered people with the wherewithal to protect their patients and employees, but in doing so, they are providing some sense of control during this unprecedented, often turbulent, and stressful time.

“We at Mount Nittany Health are so grateful to Charlie and the rest of the team within the Lifecycle Engineering Department at ARL,” stated Simon. “The team’s quick ingenuity, altruism, and desire to both empower and equip our organization to protect and support our frontline staff in the fight against COVID-19 is so deeply appreciated.”

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