In normal times, the Fab Lab at Kennedy High inspires students from the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) and community members to innovate, design and produce pretty much anything using 3D printers, laser and vinyl cutters and other advanced technologies. But these aren’t normal times.
In response to a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fab Lab has partnered with Chevron Richmond and the Richmond Community Foundation to produce and distribute 1,000 professional-grade face-shields for local frontline workers. As of today, roughly 250 have been made.
A similar effort by digital fabrication labs across the country inspired the local movement to produce PPE for the pandemic response, Fab Lab Manger Alex Fleming said. Also, WCCUSD Superintendent Matthew Duffy and others reached out to the lab wondering if there was something it could do to help, added STEM Instructional Specialist John Iwawaki.
Then Chevron Richmond, which in 2014 helped fund the Fab Lab in partnership with the school district and Fab Foundation, joined the effort, providing funding and a critical supply connection for the face shields, with Richmond Community Foundation providing swift logistical oversight of the delivery of the materials.
However, the team faced an obstacle. The polycarbonate products used to make the shields are backordered till June, Fleming said. Thankfully, Lily Rahnema, community engagement manager at Chevron Richmond, found a connection at a company in San Jose that was able to provide the material last Friday, May 1.
“We had procurement teams at the refinery as well as at our corporate office trying to help source the polycarbonate material, but also facing the same 10-12 week delivery delays across the global supply chain, due to the material’s high demand, especially at the start of the pandemic,” Rahnema said. “We were able to make a connection through the Chevron supplier diversity program which sources products and services from local small, minority and women-owned and other diverse businesses, that we found the needed materials.”
“That was a huge hurdle,” Fleming said. “Without Chevron’s help, I don’t think we’d be able to make this right now.”
Fleming says their face shield prototype came from an open source design by Budmen Industries that was approved by the National Institute of Health.
“We wanted to make sure that somebody would use it, that we’re making the right thing,” Iwawaki said.
But there was a problem with the original design.
“While it was effective, it took two-and-a-half hours per visor to print,” Fleming said.
Thankfully, the volunteer-run Something Labs modified the original design into a laser cut version.
“We can cut six visors in about six minutes,” Fleming said.
The plan is to produce the shields and swiftly deliver them to local first responders and healthcare professionals on the front lines. Rahnema has been in touch with local medical service providers not only to plan the donation, but to ensure the design the lab is using will be of use to medical workers.
Though students are unable to assist in the effort while schools are closed, the Fab Lab’s transition into a mini-PPE factory will certainly become a learning tool for them, Fleming said.
“Keychains are cool and fun to design…but [at the Fab Lab] we really try to stress real-life applications, like creating prosthetics for kids, and experiences like this,” he said.
The Fab Lab has already inspired students to join STEM fields, said Fleming, who imagines this experience will help to create more future engineers.
Rahnema said Chevron Richmond is proud to be part of an effort that helps protect front line workers.
“This initiative is a testament to our community’s unique ability to come together at times of need, using the resources we’ve built collectively,” Rahnema said. “This experience will not only benefit our frontline workers, but also the many students who receive STEM education from this state-of-the-art, award-winning fabrication lab. It’s also a critical example of Fab Lab working as a community resource beyond just our school district, and hopefully will inspire people to know we have the advanced technology available to them, and they can make almost anything right here in Richmond.”
The Fab Lab normally holds open hours when the community can use the facilities when school is in session on Wednesdays and the first Saturday of the month. However, the community hours have been temporarily suspended due the stay-at-home orders. Check the Fab Lab website for updates.