As Kentucky does its best to battle the spread of COVID-19, state and medical providers are looking for ways to answer the increasing need for medical personal protective equipment. One of those responding in a big way is a somewhat unlikely source: Somerset Community College, which is making over 100 protective face shields per day.
Somerset Community College was the first higher education institution in Kentucky to offer a statewide certificate in additive manufacturing, also called 3D printing, and thanks to the passion of Additive Manufacturing Professor Eric Wooldridge and two Rural Business Development Grants from USDA Rural Development, the program has earned a reputation as a leader in 3D printing education and technical assistance in the state.
That knowledge and experience served Wooldridge well as he answered the call for medical PPE and immediately began getting everything in order to start making protective face shields. After a quick call to Rural Development to make sure they were complying with the grant, Wooldridge started printing the first prototypes.
“I’m so proud to see one of our partners leading the way not just in emerging technology like 3D printing but also in pivoting to help meet the protective equipment needs of medical professionals,” said Rural Development Kentucky State Director Hilda Legg. “With aircraft and automobile parts being such a large part of the economy here in Kentucky, this technology has huge potential for growth, and those who go through this Somerset Community College program are getting quite a leg up on well-paying jobs.”
Additive manufacturing is, indeed, growing across many industries, and Wooldridge is quick to point out its numerous advantages.
“One of the first things that comes up in talking about this is the ability to transition between products,” said Wooldridge. “With additive manufacturing, you can constantly update and make improvements; you have instant innovation.”
That nimbleness helped Wooldridge go from a thumbs-up to the first face shields in a matter of hours, and a requested design change saw a prototype ready in less than 20 minutes with subsequent finished products coming out within the hour.
“We couldn’t be doing this without the support of the National Science Foundation and Rural Development,” said Wooldridge. “NSF and Rural Development grants were essential in getting the equipment and materials and training people how to use it all.”
With a finalized design, Wooldridge also shared the specifications with networked additive manufacturers so they too could begin production. This rapid response to a supply chain shortcoming is just another advantage of additive manufacturing.
“We’re grateful for the rally of support we’re seeing,” said Wooldridge, who is basically living out of his office to continue the process 24/7 with the help of some rotating staff members. “We’ve had a lot of people calling in to volunteer to help print and assemble these, and it’s just a really defining moment in history.”
Somerset Community College, which had just under 6,000 students enrolled in the fall of 2017, got their first 3D printer in late 2013 and began offering classes in the process in 2015. The very next year the certificate gained recognition.
“I’m proud to be a part of using this technology to help our medical providers,” said Wooldridge. “Our goal is to make Kentucky the leader in not just the U.S. but the world in additive manufacturing.”