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UCSB engineer puts idle 3D printer to work on PPE

Dave Bothman modeling one of his 3D-printed face shields.

The California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) is a place where engineers, scientists and students make prototypes for their projects —often using 3D printers. Dave Bothman, the lab manager, has lately been using the printers to make face shields for healthcare workers.

When the university moved to online learning and students went home due to the pandemic, the once busy lab on campus was empty. Bothman said he kept getting articles from fellow UCSB faculty about using 3D printers to make personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Inspired by the possibilities, he asked the UCSB administration for permission to use the lab for that purpose.

“UC has a three-fold mission of teaching, research, and community service, and making PPE for the community certainly fit within that,” says Bothman. "I got nothing but encouragement."

Bothman’s career as an engineer has focused on designing and building scientific instruments. This was his first foray into healthcare, so he relied on existing patterns. The shields fit like a visor with a clear plastic piece worn over safety glasses and masks.

“It provides an additional barrier for a healthcare provider,” said Bothman. “So that a patient that’s spreading virus, a lot of that will be intercepted by the face shield.”

Bothman and an assistant traded off keeping the 3D printers running.

“We could make about 30 per day if we ran the printers all night," said Bothman. "All day and all night."

Later in March, Bothman joined a group of UCSB researchers and local businesses to plan for the PPE needs for Santa Barbara Cottage Health.

Given what was happening in other places, Bothman said Cottage Health requested 10,000 face shields, as well as other PPE for healthcare workers. And that’s when he began collaborating with other local companies—from printing shops to biomedical manufacturers, even MOXI, the children’s science museum—that had the tools to make face shields.

Fortunately, Santa Barbara, to date, has not been overwhelmed and Bothman said Cottage Health received the face shields they need; this allowed the group to donate a large quantity for distribution to the wider community.

“These were in turn donated to the Santa Barbara Foundation with the hope that we would go out and distribute them to the organizations and facilities within the community which needed them the most,” said Stephanie Robersonof the Santa Barbara Foundation.

She coordinates distribution of the face shields to healthcare providers and nonprofits. She said she started by placing calls to other Santa Barbara County medical providers like Marian, Lompoc, and Sansum.

“We’ve also provided shields to long-term nursing facilities and residential care facilities,” said Roberson, “places like this that serve our most vulnerable populations.”

Roberson has delivered thousands of face shields within Santa Barbara County, and said there are still some available.

As for the summer, Bothman said he and others will be there, if more face shields are needed.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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