Volunteers harness ingenuity and 3-D printers to make 2,800 face shields for health workers and first responders

Various models for face shields were arranged before the group decided on the version with the purple. (Photo courtesy of Adrienne Hooker)

By Sukainah Abid-Kons, contributor

Donating 1,200 clear plastic face shields to Sentara Rockingham Memorial Hospital was already a big undertaking, but a local group of volunteers with access to 3-D printers has kept going — producing protective equipment to donate to organizations and first responders, including more than 250 face shields to the Harrisonburg Fire Department. 

The work of the group, calling itself Harrisonburg Makers Help, has had a ripple effect across the area. When interim Fire Chief Steve Morris realized that the Fire Department had enough personal protective equipment, or PPE,  to last a while, he donated the extras to the Harrisonburg Police Department, which was in need of equipment and grateful for the community-made supplies. 

“The police officers are on the front line, things can change fairly quickly, and it’s important that the police officers have PPE ready and available,” said Sgt. Chris Monahan of the Police Department “It’s important that we continue to have PPE to use, we have a responsibility to protect the public, but we also have a responsibility to protect our officers.” 

It’s one example of how people with equipment and know-how have figured out innovative ways to support one another during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jeff Guinn, the owner of The Mark-It —  a local shop that provides printing services, graphic design, and other items — was first introduced to the idea of using 3-D printers to create parts for PPE by a client. Face shields have become crucial pieces of equipment to provide medical professionals and frontline workers with a barrier between sick patients and their faces. That helps lower the risk of contracting highly infectious diseases, such as COVID-19. 

And Harrisonburg Makers Help has so far assembled and delivered in its first month of operation more than 2,800 face shields to medical centers, long-term care facilities, and first responders in Harrisonburg and across the Valley. 

With many people being out of work and isolating at home, Guinn decided to utilize the materials that he had to help those who were in need of protective equipment. 

“I was originally going to print parts and send them to South Carolina for assembly,” says Guinn, but after posting about what he was doing on social media, Harrisonburg residents started reaching out to offer their help. 

Among the wide range of people who volunteered to help were Adrienne Hooker, a professor of Media Arts and Design at James Madison University, Laura Taalman, a JMU professor of mathematics, Nathan Cooper, owner of Modus Workshop, Keenan Rowe, Digital Design and Fabrication Manager at JMU, and Jay Veenis, president and owner of Artisan Packaging. 

Hooker, who has helped coordinate the efforts, said the group now involves more than 40 people from around the Valley and accepts additional volunteers once they fill out an Intake Survey

 The group includes people who work at JMU and have access to the universities’ 3-D printers, such as those at JMU’s libraries,  as well as individuals who own 3-D printers, as well as whole families who help with various assembly tasks.  

Hooker said she also reached out to county and city schools to recruit their help, as well as Blue Ridge Community College. 

“Strength is in numbers,” she said. 

And it all began with that first big order to help hospital workers. 

Faceshields made by Harrisonburg Makers Help are arranged and ready to be packaged for delivery. (Photo courtesy of Adrienne Hooker)

A Valley-wide assembly line

After creating a few prototypes, Guinn got in touch with officials at RMH Medical Center, who requested 1,200 shields to help meet their PPE needs. The group provided the shields in a couple of installments with the last delivery coming April 15. 

This was Harrisonburg Makers Help’s “first big test run,” Hooker said.  

Mass producing the face shields, which have multiple parts, comes with some challenges. 

 “It takes 3-4 hours to produce each headband,” Guinn said. “It’s not terribly efficient, but it is very versatile.” 

Volunteers have used 3-D printing equipment at businesses, JMU’s libraries and their homes to create the face shields. (Photo courtesy of Adrienne Hooker)

But it also shows “the versatility of 3D printing, and that people can come together to use it to create something,” he added.

Each shield costs about $3.50 in materials to make, Hooker said.  

Hooker said getting access to materials is more difficult than finding willing volunteers.

One group uses 3-D printers to make the plastic headbands — or halos — at the top of the face shield and a chin guard at the bottom. Another group of volunteers handles material cutting, using tools such as laser- or water jet-cutters. And a third group are sewers, who manually sew buttonholes into elastic, Hooker said. Then the shields are funneled through two “collection hubs” where the deliveries are assembled, she said. 

“It’s been challenging in ways of procuring materials and supply chains, but it hasn’t been challenging to recruit help. It’s actually been overwhelming,” Hooker said of the outpouring of support from area residents.  

“We even have two guys who drive down from New Market to drop off what they are able to print on their own,” Hooker said. 

One of the Harrisonburg Makers Help volunteers, Charlie Fairchild, works on creating face shields. (Photo by Erin Fairchild and courtesy of Adrienne Hooker)

From helping one hospital to an entire region

Since starting with the Sentara RMH order, Harrisonburg Makers Help expanded to fulfill needs across the city. Hooker said they have worked on orders for eldercare groups and even dental practices.  

Adrienne Hooker of the group Harrisonburg Makers Help was among volunteers who dropped off a batch of face shields to Sentara RMH in April. (Photo by Janet Wendelken, RMH Foundation Senior Development Officer, and courtesy of Adrienne Hooker)

With many people not being able to leave their homes very often, being able to contribute to their community has been fulfilling in the midst of a global crisis. 

“I honestly think that Harrisonburg really does care about each other,” Hooker said of the local volunteers’ efforts. “We’re here, we can do something that really makes a  difference in our own backyard. The Friendly City really kicked in.” 

It’s one of several local examples since the COVID-19 outbreak began, such as residents helping serve meals to the homeless, distributing goods at local food banks, and painting fences in support of frontline medical workers

Guinn said he hopes the face shield production effort will be a temporary fix as the country catches up with this crisis. 

But he said he is committed to supporting his community in whatever is needed.

 “We aren’t professionals,” he said. But “as long as we have a need locally, and people aren’t able to get appropriate PPE, we’ll keep making them.” 

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