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Posted On: 12 May 2020 12:52 pm

VCUarts Qatar produces laser-cut face shields to help fight COVID-19

Binu Cherian
Binu Cherian
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Equipment designed to protect healthcare workers against COVID-19 is being developed in the laboratories of a Qatar Foundation partner university.

The Fabrication Lab – or Fab Lab - Team at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar) has been working with a group of fabricators and universities in the US for the past two months to produce protective face shields, supporting efforts to keep those in the frontline of the ongoing global pandemic safe.

After numerous prototypes were made and tested, the team is now producing its first shields, with Christopher Buchakjian, Digital Fabrication Lab and Woodshop Coordinator at VCUarts Qatar, said: “We started gathering information and doing research early on, finding that there were many 3D-printable face masks available around the world, as well as other items such as parts for ventilators, so we began making, printing, and testing our own prototypes.

“At this point, we were testing the prototypes that other groups were designing. We needed to test the feasibility of our facility to produce these items. At moments like this, when lots of groups are working on designs, it was our strategy to get connected to as many groups as possible and work with pre-existing designs that have already proved to be successful.”

Already within the Fab Lab at VCUarts Qatar were an array of valves and splitters – devices that allow one connection to be split into multiple connections - for respiratory equipment, meaning that the team already had vital material to produce effective face shields.

“We decided not to use 3D printers, but instead use our laser cutters to produce the face shields,” Buchakjian added. “This is due to the type of material we have on-hand and the specific type of 3D printers we operate.”

The team communicated with Dr. Nandakumar Pillai, the manager of occupational safety and hygiene at the QF Primary Healthcare Center, in order to assess the value that the shields could bring, and to also enable him to run the rule over their prototype and ensure that it met the criteria for use by healthcare professionals.

Shankar Padmanabhan, Assistant Coordinator in the VCUarts Qatar Fab Lab, explained: “We have been communicating with health workers to go over the details, and to adapt our designs to fit their needs - whether it is the shape of the shield, the way the headrests sits on the insert strap, and the way the head strap attaches in the back – and all these design details taken a little time, so we have developed many prototypes.”

According to Buchakjian: “We made different versions and ultimately created one that we and our working group in the US were happy with, so now we are producing the first batch of shields.”

At the moment, the masks are being made specifically for doctors and other frontline healthcare workers who have direct interaction with patients. However, as people working in other fields may also require them, the Fab Lab team – which also includes technicians Dana Ladki, Eman Makki, and Saga Elkabash, all of whom are VCUarts Qatar alumni – have the capacity to change the design, and produce more masks

“The next step will probably be to find out who else might need these masks, whether they are in or outside of Qatar, and see if we can produce face shields for them,” Padmanabhan said.

He also outlined the many challenges the team had to overcome while working on this project. “The obvious challenge we faced has been to work in a socially-distanced and safe environment,” he said.

“And the other hurdle has been to adapt the equipment that we have to the demands of this project. We had to prototype and test a lot of materials to get the optimal results that we are looking for.”

Buchakjian and Padmanabhan said the support of both VCUarts Qatar and Qatar Foundation’s Health, Safety, Security and Environment directorate have been vital to the progress of their mask-making project. “We are grateful for their support and guidance – this project would not have been possible without it,” said Padmanabhan.

Contributors to the project also included VCUarts Qatar’s Deputy Safety Officer, Andrea Cecetka; and Jeff Solin, a computer science teacher at Lane Technical College Preparatory High School in Chicago, US, who designed the Solin Flatpack Face Shield and put the designs on the internet, together with an assembly video and illustrations.

Source: Press release