Lessons Learned by NYC Makers Producing Personal Protective Equipment for Medics

Focus on what health workers actually need, rather than what you think you can invent

3 min read
Nurses posed for this photo as a thank you to the volunteers that hand-made and delivered the face shields for them.
Nurses posed for this photo as a thank you to the volunteers who hand-made and delivered the face shields for them.
Photo: NYCMakesPPE

A coalition of 14 makerspaces, hospitals, and unions has organized to create and distribute face shields and other protective equipment to frontline nurses and doctors coping with a wave of COVID-19 cases in New York City.

They made their first delivery of 97 shields on 22 March, and currently have enough capacity to produce between 500 and 1,000 shields a day, according to Jake Lee, a computer science masters student at Columbia University and spokesperson for the coalition called NYC Makes PPE. And they’ve some tips for other engineers and makers itching to put their skills and facilities to use.

The group began as a Discord chat group founded by Jay Li of the Hack Manhattan makerspace. It took about a week for them to focus on producing three face shield designs. These are the WISC, which requires a foam tape headband, a clear plastic sheet, and elastic; the 3DVerkstan, which uses a 3D printed headband and a plastic sheet; and the NYU Open Source Face Shield, which requires just a plastic sheet and an elastic.

Choosing what to make was a big challenge because it required juggling multiple factors, including the materials required, assembly time, and user comfort. “Depending on what materials are available, different designs might be ideal,” says Lee. “The second part is manufacturing. How many person-hours are required to make each design? For example once the parts are ready, the 3DVerkstan design requires very little assembly, whereas with the WISC, someone has to glue the foam to the front and attach the elastic to the sides… so for scaling, that works less well.”

“3D-printed N-95s are a terrible idea.”

The group also got input from friends and family who are doctors and nurses. “Obviously these aren’t FDA approved or certified at the moment, so these are very last resort options for these health care workers, but even still we want to make sure that they are comfortable so that they can wear it all day. We want to make sure they don’t fog…and it should wrap around the face so any side splash is covered by the shield,” added Lee.

The group’s website offers a form for health care workers requesting PPE to be delivered to them, as well as a link to a GoFundMe page for funds to buy materials. The group is also looking at making sewn face masks, choosing them over any attempts to 3D-print masks: “We noticed a lot of hype around 3D printed face masks, but we’re 99 percent confident that those are not the way to go. 3D printed N-95s are a terrible idea,” says Lee, citing concerns about unfiltered air passing between the user and the printed parts, the porosity of printed plastic, and the consequent dangers of a false sense of security.

Similarly, there are no active plans to put ventilator parts into production.

“You can always throw engineers in a room and tell them to make a design, but it’s a totally different question as to whether doctors and hospitals will actually accept them.”

“We have a very active discussion in our chat room right now about which design is the best—[to see if] they can even be printed, or if there’s a need for them to be printed. Traditional manufacturers may be on the path to supplying these to the degree that we might not have to step in, that’s honestly the best case scenario…We’re doing our best diligence with professors, manufacturers, engineers, so that if we end up making them, then whatever we make will be as safe as possible…. But there is a lot of noise, because people get excited, people started CADing these things in their bedrooms and just started sharing them out.”

Assembly line at Fat Cat Fab Lab, where volunteers are attaching elastic straps to the front shield component. Assembly line at Fat Cat Fab Lab, where volunteers are attaching elastic straps to the front-shield component. Photo: NYCMakesPPE

Lee says that a lack of invention isn’t the problem when it comes to meeting some of the challenges posed by medical equipment shortages—it’s logistics. If engineers and makers want to help, they should first try and see what’s being done locally. “The ideal case scenario is that nothing is being done because there is no need. But New York City is kind of like the worst case scenario for that, there’s an active PPE shortage and organizations like these need to exist to fill a gap…. Just starting the organization and starting the infrastructure to link engineers to hospitals, that’s the most important part of the equation. Because you can always throw engineers in a room and tell them to make a design, but it’s a totally different question as to whether doctors and hospitals will actually accept them or if they even need those designs in the first place, so communication is number one,” says Lee.

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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