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3D-printing facility in California stepping in to help with face shields in fight against coronavirus

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What began as a simple tweet challenging engineers and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley to help health care workers during coronavirus has now turned into a community-led operation. The goal is to build thousands of 3D-printed face shields for doctors and nurses on the front lines of the fight against the deadly pandemic.

Two weeks ago, Michael Elliott, chief operating officer for the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Foundation (SCVMC) — the non-profit fundraising arm of the Santa Clara County public health care system — posted a tweet asking for "thousands" of face shields to help health care workers across the country.

"I had a sense in my mind that there's got to be people in Silicon Valley who can do this," Elliott told CBS News. "People think Silicon Valley and you certainly think the big heavy hitters but there is also this heritage of this being a manufacturing hub of people that like to build stuff and tinker with stuff," he added.

On Monday, volunteers from Maker Nexus, a Bay Area non-profit organization that provides members with access to tools like laser cutters and 3D-printers to produce objects for practical and artistic purposes, delivered the first set of 500 reusable face shields to SCVMC.

Elliott said Maker Nexus, which he described as a "modern day version of a cool woodshop," was the first organization that was able to produce the face shields in large quantities and at a quality level that can be used every day by health care providers.

Maker Nexus operates a space in Sunnyvale where members take classes and use tools such as 3D-printers, laser cutters and vinyl cutters to produce anything they want. The organization's co-founder, Jim Schrempp, told CBS News that because of social distancing guidelines, the space has been closed and the "equipment is just sitting idle."

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A look at the prototype of a 3D-printed face shield. Handout / Maker Nexus

After seeing Elliott's tweet, one of the organization's members began work on a prototype using a design from a 3D-printer manufacturer in the Czech Republic. It took several iterations and consultation with doctors and nurses at SCVMC before a model that met medical standards was approved.

"We have some 3D-printers ourselves, but we also put out a call to the community," said Schrempp. "The real story is it is not just our 3D-printers. We have 300 people out there with 3D-printers in their homes who are making the 3D-printed parts."

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3D-printers helping in the production of face shields for health care workers. Handout / Maker Nexus

The face shields — which are made from thick plastic sheets, a band of elastic and some foam — can be washed and reused. Schrempp said he has enough materials to make at least 3,000 face-shields, but the goal is to produce up to 3,000 a day.

One of the components currently in short supply is the plastic used to make the face shield. It is similar to the plastic used for water bottles, and Schrempp is hoping to find contacts at companies that make water and soda bottles so he can ask for a donation of the materials.

"They use this stuff in million pound rolls and if they could probably give us the end of one of those rolls, it would be all we need for a month," Schrempp said.

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Race to make and distribute personal protective equipment

Face shields — in addition to N95 face masks, gowns and gloves — are part of the personal protective equipment (PPE) that doctors and nurses desperately need as they treat patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. The government's emergency stockpile of PPE is almost depleted, according to a Department of Homeland Security official.

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Dr. Sanjay Kurani  Handout / Santa Clara Valley Medical Center

Dr. Sanjay Kurani, SCVMC's medical director, told CBS News that based on his conversations, nurses can go through at least 15 sets of PPE per day, per patient. Some nurses can see up to 30 patients a day, meaning there is potential for one nurse to use 450 sets in one day.

Kurani said health care workers are "accustomed to taking care of patients who can have communicable diseases," but added that the fear of running out of protective gear remains.

"Many are thinking, are we going to have the supply chain through our usual vendors?" Kurani asked. "Well, now we have the supply chain through our community, which is just a dose of energy and a dose of improved morale for our staff."

Health care workers "are not alone"

On Wednesday afternoon, Elliott and Kurani went to Maker Nexus in Sunnyvale to meet with Schremmp for a tour of the facility and to thank the volunteers helping with production of the face shields.

Elliot said it is important to let those fighting on the front lines know that as they take care of patients, the community is ready and willing to care for them.

"It sends a message to the health care workforce that they are not alone and that people are stepping up and doing what they can," Elliott said. He added that there is "some real value" in lifting up health care workers "emotionally" and letting them know that members of the community are behind them.

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Santa Clara Valley Medical Center

There are 11 hospitals in the Santa Clara area and three of them are owned and operated by the County. As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly 1,000 cases of coronavirus were reported in Santa Clara County, the most in the greater Bay Area.

Kurani said the "duty" of health care workers is prioritizing the health of the community and that it's "incredibly heartwarming" the community "wants to make sure our health is the number one priority for them."

"I honestly think it is going to be this type of collaboration between the hospitals and the community that is going to allow us to beat this virus," Kurani said.

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