Brown Design Workshop responds to COVID crisis with custom-made solutions

In the University’s makerspace, 3D printers and other rapid prototyping equipment are being used to make personal protective equipment and other components that address the specific needs of local health providers.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Normally, the Brown Design Workshop, the University’s makerspace, is buzzing this time of year with students finishing up final projects. That’s not happening this year with the facility closed as part of the University’s response to COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean the place has gone silent. 

For the past few weeks, Chris Bull, the workshop’s director, and students working remotely have been using the facility’s 3D printers and other equipment to make much-needed personal protective equipment for local health care organizations. The Brown Design Workshop is part of a network of 3D printers around campus, including in Brown’s Multimedia Labs, that’s helping to respond to the COVID crisis.

Bull says that a facility like the workshop is a unique position to contribute in this current situation. It isn’t set up for mass production, but what it can do is produce small runs of items that are tailored to specific circumstances. So Bull has been working with people at local hospitals to find out exactly what they need and how students and faculty can help. 

“It’s interesting the way these solutions develop,” Bull said. “The problems we’re hearing about are specific to Rhode Island or in some cases to a specific hospital. It’s like, tell us what you have on hand and we’ll see if we can make something that helps you to get the most out of it.”

Courtesy of the School of Engineering

For example, one local hospital had a surplus of outdated masks. The filtering parts of the masks were fine, but the elastic and other structural parts were worn out. So Bull and a few students used 3D printers to make molds in which silicon mask parts could be cast. The silicon serves as a sort of scaffolding to which filter material from old masks can be attached, turning a previously useless mask into a useful one. 

For this project and others like it, Bull has lined up assistance from students who can work in the shop remotely. Eric Dubois, a senior biomedical engineering concentrator, has been running 3D printers over the internet from his home in New Hampshire. 

“I’ll be there working on other things and suddenly the machine will start up, and it’s Eric,” Bull said. “He’s been printing the molds and other parts. My job is to be the guy who goes in and clears the printer bed so he can start another job.”

In the coming days, Bull will start work on a new project, which grew out of a collaborative working group that includes Rhode Island Hospital, Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School and the School of Engineering. The hospital asked if Bull might be able to make a special type of face shield worn by practitioners performing intubations. The shields fit inside a soft helmet, and a blower creates positive pressure in the helmet so nothing can get inside. The hospital had plenty of helmets, but were concerned that they might not have enough shields. 

“We made some prototypes, tested them and they worked,” Bull said. “So they asked us if we could make 100 a day. We gulped and said we’d give it a shot but we didn’t have the materials. They then got in touch with Toray Plastics in North Kingstown, who found a roll of what we were looking for. That looks like where we’ll be spending most of our effort in the next couple of weeks.”

Bull says he’s hopeful that the partnerships with the community that have emerged during the crisis will be lasting ones.

“The collaboration has created connections and new possibilities for working together that will outlive this event.”