Nebraska Innovation Studio routinely fields requests from businesses and individuals to build gadgets and doodads capable of solving any number of problems.
Makers at the workshop in Nebraska Innovation Campus have transformed felled ash trees into furniture, or used a laser engraver to customize Christmas gifts for that special someone.
But amid a growing health crisis, the maker space has been asked to fabricate lifesaving personal protective equipment for the state's health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
Beginning Thursday, Innovation Studio, engineers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Virtual Incision and Lincoln Tool and Design will start filling a request from Nebraska's hospitals for thousands of face shields.
To be precise -- 13,000.
"The requests are overwhelming," said Shane Farritor, a UNL professor of engineering and the chief technology officer at Virtual Incision, which designs and manufactures surgical robots. "That's a big number; just a different kind of game."
Using templates of face shields made using 3D printers in Europe and elsewhere, designers at Virtual Incision "took some of the best designs" and went through several iterations to create its own piece of protective equipment, Farritor said.
They then built an injection mold in the lab of Ben Terry, an associate professor of mechanical and materials engineering at UNL, allowing liquefied plastic to be shot at high pressure into the shape of a face shield.
The entire process takes about 30 seconds, Farritor said, which is slow by injection-mold standards, but will ultimately allow Innovation Studio to meet the demand in the coming days.
"The plan is by noon to be at that 1,500 units-per-day production level," Farritor said early Thursday. "We'll do that until the wheels fall off."
More shields are being printed at Kawasaki, where engineers have been running the company's 3D printer around the clock even while the plant is idled to produce a dozen per day.
Employees with their own 3D printers are also making shields to donate to area hospitals, Kawasaki said in a statement. On Thursday, the company donated 86 face shields to Bryan Health and 34 to the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Final assembly and packaging will be done at Innovation Studio at UNL's research park before the personal protective equipment is shipped off to the health care workers who desperately need it.
Farritor said the biggest limitation to how many face shields can be manufactured is the supply of the clear plastic sheeting.
Innovation Studio has a limited supply, and even though Kawasaki is ordering more plastic, Farritor said any donations would be welcome as manufacturing moves forward.
While Innovation Studio was stood up to allow Nebraskans to unleash their inner maker, Farritor said the ongoing COVID-19 response could prove to be "the moment for all innovation studios."
"In some way, this is exactly what Innovation Studio is for," he said. "People who come together and make things to help others. This is exactly that."
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