Earlier today we reported on Apple’s plans to design, manufacture and ship face shields for healthcare workers in the United States and across the globe, in the fight against COVID-19.

Now teams at the digital incubator of Wits University’s Tshimologong Precinct, are answering local calls for medical gear, with Netcare 911 recently calling for the 3D printing community to assist.

Engineers at Wits have heeded the call in their own right, and instead of 3D printing the head rings for face shields, have decided to laser cut them, with the 3D printing method taking on average 90 minutes to complete.

Explaining how they went about it, the team consisting of, Guy Richards, Letlotlo Phohole, Moses Mogotlane, Palesa Riba and Randall Paton, redesigned downloaded files from GitHub, utilising a rapid prototyping method in order to get to the final laser cut product.

“Netcare was going to provide the actual shield and clips to put it together. We were not happy with the limitation and wanted to use what is readily available to us, cheap to make, and light-weight. Most of all, we wanted to produce a complete product. We also anticipated long printing times with a 3D printer and possible filament shortages given the national drive for face shields and masks,” says Phohole.

Detailing the design of their version, the face shields, which are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) sheeting, are a flat-packable and consist of two pieces that can be rapidly assembled, the team notes.

“The School had stock of the PVC sheeting from another earlier project. The shields are therefore being provided at no cost to the hospitals,” says Paton.

“We ensure that after production they (face shields) are washed, rinsed, and dried to remove any potentially harmful residue from the laser cutting. This is done in a production line fashion and is now the tightest bottleneck in the project, given that we only have one working laser cutter,” he adds.

With an average production time of three minutes, including setup time, to cut a set of pieces for each face shield, the team anticipates making 200 to 500 shields a day to help meet the growing demand of protective gear for healthcare workers in the country.

The Wits team says it produced 140 face shields, and distributed 120 to the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre and another 20 to the Wits Protection Services staff, four days after Netcare 911 made the call for more medical gear.

The team adds that it 300 face shields have been created to date, of which 200 will be donated to Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital and 100 to Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital.

The Wits engineers also hope to distribute face shields to Helen Joseph and Chris Hani Baragwanath hospitals, both of which are Wits teaching hospitals.

“I think that many South Africans, as a nation of ‘make-a-plan’, are frustrated by not being able to help in a tangible way during the lockdown and this has channelled that energy somewhere. This has been as inspiring to be a part of as watching everyone trying to help Netcare with 3D printing for the face shields. These are extraordinary people in extraordinary times,” concludes Paton.