SOMA network creates face shields for medical professionals

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MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Jake Ezzo bought a 3D printer a couple of months ago, thinking it would become a hobby he could get into as he learned to make objects to use around his Maplewood home.

It hasn’t exactly turned out that way.

Now, more than three weeks into the quarantine that has shut down schools, nonessential businesses and normal life for most of the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ezzo and a network of other 3D-printer owners from around the state are using their technology to make face shields for health care workers, who are in desperate need of this personal protective equipment as they treat patients with the coronavirus. The network has made more than 1,000 shields so far.

Ezzo’s parents had sent him an article about a 3D printer company, Budmen Industries, headquartered in his hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., which had suspended its normal sales to make face shields. Budmen made the design available on its website for anyone who owns a 3D printer and wants to help, so Ezzo decided to join in.

“I got the printer to print things to hang in my house and just experiment with it,” the South Orange Middle School choir director said in a phone interview on April 2. “But I think doing this is giving us some sort of power that we can use to help. We feel like we can make an impact. It’s definitely the last thing I expected.”

A Facebook group, SOMA NJ 3D Printers Alliance, has expanded outside of South Orange and Maplewood to include central and south Jersey towns. The group is filled with people willing to use their printers to make shields, others who can assemble the pieces and others still who can drop them off at hospitals. Ezzo’s house in Maplewood has been a dropoff and pickup location for face shields being delivered to St. Barnabas Medical Center, Hackensack University Medical Center, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Rahway, Morristown Medical Center, Clara Maass Medical Center and NYU Langone Health in New York, in addition to many others. The South Orange and Maplewood police departments, fire departments and rescue squad have also received 3D-printed face shields.

Columbia High School senior Zubin Guha has also been making the face shields, keeping four printers whirring — two are his own and two are from the school. A member of the high school’s robotics team, Guha was allowed to take the CHS printers home with him when the district closed, all to aid in the cause.

“Originally I was looking at making ventilator parts, but they have to be approved by the NIH,” Guha said in a phone interview on April 4. “So I’m making the masks. I have access to these printers, and if I can, why not?”

The face shields are made by plugging the design into the printer and setting it to print. The machine is loaded with plastic filament, which is heated up to about 200 degrees, so it’s malleable. It then layers the filament into the design shape until the object is finished.

“The printer draws shapes with a modified hot glue gun on top of each other until you have an object,” Guha said to describe the process. When it cools and hardens, the object is complete. Depending on the printers and the size of the object being printed, a face shield can take anywhere from 40 to 90 minutes to complete. Guha estimates he can make about 30 per day. On April 6, he had made 360 total.

“You can more or less set it and let it print,” he said. “Sometimes the design will mess up, so you have to check on it every once in a while. But you don’t have to sit there with it.”

One of Ezzo’s sixth-grade students at SOMS, Jesse Busch, has his own 3D printer and is making face shields to donate. He got the printer for his birthday and was designing things for fun and for school, but when Ezzo started the Facebook group and Jesse’s mother, Dara Busch, asked him if he wanted to participate, he jumped at the opportunity. In a phone interview on April 2, Jesse said he made about 25 face shield visors over three days.

“I can make my own file and design, and it takes about two hours,” he said. “I can probably make about 100. I don’t have to watch it, but I do have to be there when the filament is switching. I wanted to give back to people who have helped me.”

The Busches have a cousin in South Orange who was looking for face shields for a friend who is a health care worker, and when she was put in contact with the 3D-printing Facebook group, she was able to pick some up.

“She went to pick them up and found out they were Jesse’s masks,” Dara Busch said in a phone interview on April 2. “That was good to hear. But we’re glad to see on the news that people are wearing them, whether they’re Jesse’s or someone else’s.”

Joining in the face shield production isn’t limited to those who have 3D printers. People are needed to assemble the shields, sew elastics to them and make delivery runs to hospitals that need them. Guha also encouraged residents to donate money to buy printer supplies.

“It’s around $0.75 per piece,” he said. “So that’s one thing people can do if they don’t have the materials.”

SOMA NJ 3D Printers Alliance is a public Facebook group; it can be found at www.facebook.com/groups/221580355872833.

“I’ve talked to some of my kids and they feel helpless,” Ezzo said of his students. “This has given them almost a sigh of relief. From a perspective of not being medically trained, I felt helpless too. But you can help with the skill sets you have and join in to find other things to do.”

Photos Courtesy of Dara Busch and Jake Ezzo

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