Printing face shields for the front lines

By Manette Newbold Fisher

Photography By Randy Montoya

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Teens use 3D printers built at Sandia to pay it forward, help medical professionals

teens working on computers
FUTURE LEADERS — Teens work with 3D printers during a robotics camp hosted at Sandia last May. Some camp participants are now using 3D printers to make face shields for donation to medical professionals.

Teens who learned to build 3D printers during a weeklong robotics camp at Sandia last year have used them to make more than 3,000 face shields that have been donated to medical professionals and first responders in New Mexico.

The camp was hosted by Sandia in collaboration with R4 Creating, a nonprofit organization that provides robotics and STEM opportunities for kids. Sandia graduate student intern John Krukar instructed the students at the camp last year and said when he found out what the teens are making now, it was a highlight during the global crisis.

“It’s easy to feel helpless and think, ‘How could I make a difference?’” he said. “To hear that these kids took what they learned from the camp, and together, they’re making a difference in the community, it made it feel like we had gotten this awesome return on investment. It was cool to do the camp anyway and ignite their interest in 3D printing and engineering, but now they’re helping our state and our city.”

students working on computers
GIVING BACK — Two teens work together after making 3D printers at Sandia last May. Some teens from the camp have since taught others how to build the printers.

Fourteen teens participated in the robotics camp last May, then taught more teens how to build 3D printers during summer and winter camps, said Shelly Gruenig, who leads R4 Creating. Now, about 20 teens are continuously running the machines to create bands that fit around the forehead and can be attached to commercial-off-the-shelf, plastic transparency sheets that cover the face.

The face shields offer non-medical-grade protection and are often worn in addition to medical-grade personal protective equipment, Gruenig said. They have been delivered at no cost to medical centers, pueblos, fire departments and EMTs.

All organizations that were offered the shields have accepted, she said. “There was such a shortage of supplies. Many of these places didn’t have enough protective equipment for their staff.”

Teen leader takes charge

The first 500 face shields were produced using resources the students already had, Gruenig said, and financial support from the community has helped them continue making more. The original idea came from 16-year-old Kent Nelson, who participated in a robotics camp last winter, where he learned to build a 3D printer from one of the teens who had attended the summer camp at Sandia.

face shield
PAYING IT FORWARD — Face shields made by New Mexico teens are being donated to medical centers, pueblos, fire departments and EMTs around the state. (Photo courtesy of R4 Creating)

Nelson’s family had already been brainstorming ideas of how to spend time together in quarantine, and Gruenig challenged the robotics group to think of ways to make their time at home productive. Nelson suggested they could make face shields, and he did some research on best practices for making them.

“The design we chose is a good one because it’s easy to sanitize,” he said. “It’s also quick to print. It takes about 30-45 minutes, and the materials are really easy to get.”

He said the group plans to keep printing, assembling and delivering the face shields for as long as they’re needed.

“It really has been a beautiful thing,” Gruenig said. “We’ve given people hope. People constantly tell me, ‘Oh my gosh, teenagers are doing this?’ This gives me hope for our future, with teen leaders like this.”

Ripple effect

During the camp last year, John provided 3D model files participants could use right away to print video game characters, steamboats and lizards; then he helped them design original figurines using free open-source programs. John also used a 3D depth camera to capture the teenagers so they could print action figures of themselves.

face shields
PLAYING IT SAFE — Face shields made by local teens are ready for donation. (Photo courtesy of R4 Creating)

“When we were trying to come up with an idea of what we could teach the kids, we said, hey, let’s do a 3D printer kit,” said Sandia manager Jake Deuel, who led the camp with John. “We figured kids would make toys. Who knew that they would be used for COVID-19 response to help true first responders? When I heard about what they’re doing, it felt like pride and excitement all rolled into one emotion.”

John hopes the teens continue using their skills to teach and help others in the future. “Now there are even more kids than were at the camp who have built 3D printers. I taught them a few things, and they’re probably better than me now at all this stuff,” he said.

“They’re continuing to teach other kids and it has a ripple effect. This has probably been the highlight of the pandemic for me to hear, ‘wow, these guys are doing something. They’re really paying it forward.’”