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Silver Lining: West Hartford Teachers Use 3D Printers to Produce PPE

West Hartford firefighters wearing face shields produced by West Hartford Public Schools CTE teachers. Courtesy photo

West Hartford Public Schools teachers are using their skills and resources to help some of the town’s own first responders, creating face shields and ear guards that are being used by the West Hartford police and fire departments.

Face shields being fabricated at Rachel Kane’s home. Courtesy photo

By Ronni Newton

West Hartford Public Schools teachers and staff had a few days to plan before the school buildings were going to be locked for what was originally scheduled as at least a two-week closure, now in its seventh week, as most people in the district, the town, the state, and the country stay home stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As they prepared for locking down the buildings on March 16, Brian Cohen, supervisor of the district’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) Department, got a call from Assistant Superintendent Andy Morrow asking about the department’s 3D printers and whether they could be used to help craft hard-to-find personal protective equipment (PPE) for those who would not be able to stay home – the town’s first responders.

Cohen said the department has a total of eight 3D printers, of various sizes and capacity, a number of which were were obtained through grants from the Foundation for West Hartford Public Schools. He knew of two that could perhaps be put to use pretty quickly, but the buildings were being locked down and he wouldn’t have access.

“Mike Wilkosz at Hall, he’s a rockstar,” Cohen said. “He was leading the way, said he could get [a 3D printer] up and running in his garage.”

As soon as Cohen was able to arrange access to the buildings to retrieve the printers, Wilkosz, a CTE teacher at Hall and a two-time Teacher of the Year finalist in West Hartford, immediately got to work in his Newington garage.

“Every morning we had a firefighter count our face shields to determine how many we were using daily,” said West Hartford Fire Department Assistant Chief Hugh O’Callaghan. “We were extremely concerned early in the pandemic with running out of face shields for our firefighters. We had just enough to make it through the initial COVID-19 response and we did not know when our next shipment of shields would be in,” he said.

Bob McCue, a former assistant chief with the West Hartford Police Department who is now part of the town’s Office of Emergency Management, told Cohen that while PPE for the town’s first responders was on order, the wait looked to be about six weeks – a problem far from unique to West Hartford. Gov. Ned Lamont has indicated at many of his press briefings that he has been “scouring the globe” to find PPE, with staff vetting possible offers that often don’t pan out.

In addition to Wilkosz, Rachel Kane, a CTE teacher at Sedgwick Middle School, has been 3D printing at her Manchester home.

Nick Adler, also a CTE teacher at Sedgwick, volunteered to help as well, but his 3D printer was being fixed. He was able to temporarily borrow one from Bristow Middle School, and now has his own repaired printer is back in service and in use at his Haddam home.

Getting the plastic parts printed only solved part of the problem, Cohen said.

“The real key piece was getting my hands on the mylar,” he said – the clear part that actually covers and protects the responders’ face. He had to source elastic as well.

Like the governor’s office, Cohen essentially scoured the globe for the coveted material. He lucked out when the owner of a company on the west coast happened to personally pick up the phone.

“He said, ‘I have three rolls left. As long as you tell me you’re not going to sell it, I’ll sell you one roll,'” Cohen said.

Cohen bought the mylar, which was shipped to his home, and it was enough to make 100 shields.

After some searching, Cohen said he was able to purchase the elastic, another key component of the shields, from a craft store.

According to Cohen, it take about two hours to print just one of the plastic pieces that holds the clear part of the face shield in place, and the machines are running virtually non-stop. The parts are made of filament, which comes in tubes that look like straws. The process uses heat to fuse the filament together and create a 3-dimensional object that matches a prototype design input into the printer.

West Hartford Public Schools’ 3D printers are being used to make plastic pieces that are a key component of face shields. Courtesy photo

Wilkosz, as a Hall teacher, has mostly blue filament, but Cohen asked him to use red as well – not just because it’s a color the fire department likes, but also because his son is a senior at Conard and his daughter graduated from there a few years ago. Kane favors pink and purple, he said.

In addition, Wilkosz has been using his 3D printer to create ear guards – a thin piece of plastic that makes it more comfortable when you have a piece of elastic behind your ears for many hours at time holding a mask in place. It’s particularly helpful to the firefighters because it fits underneath their helmets, Cohen said. The ear guards only take about 20 minutes each to print.

Ear guards make wearing a mask more comfortable, and are also being made by West Hartford Public Schools CTE teachers. Courtesy photo

Cohen went to each teachers’ house to pick up the finished products.

The first batch of 56 shields were delivered to McCue early last week, and he hoped to deliver the rest from the first roll of mylar by the end of the week. Cohen said he has been able to source more mylar, which is due to arrive soon, and the teachers will be able to produce another 100 or so shields.

“Once we heard that someone had made us 100 face shields, we were able to breath a sigh of relief,” O’Callaghan said. “Then to find out the face shields were made from a 3D printer by the West Hartford Public Schools made it more personal. This was our own community coming to our rescue. The teachers involved in producing and distributing these protective shields didn’t have to help but they chose to be involved. They chose to help this resilient community and it’s firefighters. We in the West Hartford Fire Department will not forget this gesture.”

“I think it’s fantastic,” Morrow said. “Any time we’ve had the chance to look at the resources the schools have, we’ve been able to leverage that.”

Even before any of the face shields were ready for distribution, Morrow said, West Hartford Public Schools had already donated any masks and other PPE, as well as cleaning products and thermometers, to the town’s first responders.

Morrow said it’s great that the teachers are able to use the equipment that we already had to really make an impact.

Cohen said the teachers are excited about helping out. “The goal is to keep this going so we can get [shields] for all the firefighters, all the police officers.” He’s hoping to produce and deliver about 50 shields every four days for the first responders.

Cohen said he’d also like to donate some shield to assisted living facilities that are in need of PPE as well, a goal that hits very close to home.

A few weeks ago, as he was working to get the 3D printing process up and running, both of Cohen’s parents became infected with COVID-19. His father, Joe Cohen, 85, died of COVID-19-related causes on April 11.

His mother, who is in her late 70s, is recovering and hoping to return to her West Hartford assisted living facility shortly. Cohen said many of the healthcare workers, including those caring for his parents, wore only cloth masks, and he believes they would be much safer wearing face shields.

While the West Hartford Public Schools students can’t directly work on this project while they are distance learning, some of the CTE teachers have been engaging them in the process during their office hours, asking for feedback and ideas on how to improve the product or process.

“Our goal, if we do get to go back to school, is to get the kids involved in the printing of these,” Cohen said.

He also wants to be sure that Wilkosz, Kane, and Adler, are recognized for their efforts. “They are the lifesavers in this effort, the unsung heroes.”

Silver Lining’ highlights the positive stories in the West Hartford community as residents, businesses, and organizations deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you have an idea for a “Silver Lining” story? Please email Ronni Newton at [email protected].

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