Regional partnerships make emergency face shield materials, assembly possible

Published 11:56 am Friday, May 15, 2020

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JOHNSON CITY —Across the Appalachian Highlands resilient workers, makers and volunteers are dedicated to supplying the personal protective equipment health care professionals need to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. One such example is a regional effort underway to manufacture face shields.
Production of several types of the emergency face shields, including one designed by faculty at East Tennessee State University, began in March when Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission issued a statewide request for personal protective equipment.
Dr. Keith Johnson and Bill Hemphill from ETSU’s Department of Engineering, Engineering Technology and Surveying immediately went to work developing a prototype that would be comfortable to wear.
They used copolyester previously donated by Eastman as well as other materials commonly available at hardware stores. Meanwhile, STREAMWORKS, an educational program in Kingsport, began producing 3D printed headbands for face shields in its STEM Gym.
Both groups had almost everything they needed to begin manufacturing, with the exception of one very important piece —the clear copolyester for the actual face shield. Eastman Polymer Technology Division teams quickly turned out rolls of PETG, a material typically used for medical devices.
Brendan Boyd, vice president of Specialty Plastics and Fibers Technology, said he received a call Saturday, March 21, from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission about the project to provide PPE for frontline medical personnel in Nashville and discovered they were running out of materials for the critical piece of the face shield. The following Monday, his team began to extrude out the resins made at Eastman into film material for the critical component of the face shields. Later that week, he heard about ETSU’s face shield design and other local PPE producers such as STREAMWORKS in similar need for material.
“Given Eastman’s presence and our roots in the community, we certainly wanted to do our part to make sure local efforts had the materials they needed,” Boyd said.
Initially, the face shield project relied heavily on existing equipment in ETSU’s guitar-building lab to cut the actual shields out of sheets of PETG provided by Eastman. Hemphill, Johnson and others worked tirelessly in the lab-turned-manufacturing-center to try to keep up with the demand for the shields.
Thankfully, Borla Performance Industries offered to help. The performance exhaust manufacturer located in Johnson City has equipment capable of cutting out the shield pieces much faster. Since last month, Borla has provided shield cutouts in batches of 500 for ETSU to pair with materials for the headband, many of them donated, and move forward with assembly.
“This has been a great opportunity for Borla to work in conjunction with ETSU,” said Patrick Mardis, operation manager. “We had the equipment, we had the people, so we thought, ‘Let’s put the resources to good use.’”
The face shield design evolved over the last six weeks to incorporate zip ties and PEX tubing rather than bolts, washers and nuts to secure the pieces of the frame together. Additionally, engineers at Borla took an open-source design from the internet and developed a single-use face shield with a lighter weight and simplified design, and began production in conjunction with ETSU.  Borla will continue to produce these shields throughout the summer.
“When we learned what ETSU and Borla were doing, we wanted to help out,” Boyd said. “I have been impressed with ETSU, both the adaptability and drive to get things done, especially in finding some unconventional ways of assembling the face shields.”
With materials in place, ETSU called upon its Facilities Management staff, socially distanced from one another, to begin assembling face shields in the football locker room. To help keep up with the demand, ETSU also called upon staff and student volunteers to assemble face shield kits at home. Materials were also delivered to the Northeast Correctional Complex (NECX) in Mountain City. To date, the offender population that works for TRICOR at NECX have assembled over 1,000 face shields.
“We’re proud to serve the Tri-Cities community and we will continue to provide whatever resources possible to our partners in this collaborative effort to combat COVID-19,” said Bert Boyd, warden.
“This is truly a team effort and over the last six weeks we have been working as quickly as we can to get the materials and people in place to produce as many face shields as possible,” said Johnson, chair for ETSU’s Department of Engineering, Engineering Technology and Surveying.
 Nearly 5,000 emergency face shields designed by ETSU have been donated thus far. The university has worked alongside the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Northeast Tennessee Healthcare Preparedness Coalition, ETSU Health and Ballad Health to deliver the face shields as well as donations of supplies and personal protection equipment to health care facilities across the region and state.
 “Those face shields have meant so much to Ballad Health and to the entire Appalachian Highlands region,” said Alan Levine, chairman and chief executive officer for Ballad Health. “We have such an amazing community that came together and said, ‘What are the problems and how do we contribute to solving them?’ It is ingrained in our culture to want to solve our own problems.  We ask for help when we need it and we have a culture of getting things done.”
Health care providers from across the state and beyond have also reached out to ETSU seeking face shields. Industry leaders and fellow makers in other states and as far as Russia have requested data, offered ideas for improving the design and asked how to begin producing their own. CADD designs of the emergency face shield, as well as the materials list and assembly instructions, are available at Hemphill, who is well known for his guitar-building classes at ETSU, has shared the designs with other STEM guitar makers across the country. He repurposed ETSU’s guitar-building lab and his courses this spring to meet the immediate need of personal protective equipment.
“After spring break, I asked students to help me with the design work and they stepped up with some great ideas,” he said.  “Throughout this, our focus has been on meeting the needs of regional health care professionals and first responders. Knowing that our open-source design has a literal worldwide footprint is still my fondest personal takeaway.”
ETSU President Brian Noland commended this regional effort.
“When tested, the people of East Tennessee State University and the Appalachian Highlands can rise to any challenge,” he said. “I am proud of the can-do attitude ETSU has adopted as we continue to embody our service mission to improve the lives of the people of this region. We are thankful to all our partners for coming together to provide protection for the courageous health care professionals taking great care of our neighbors.”

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