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Battling the Coronavirus in 3-D

June 11, 2020

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic kept Angelo State engineering student Alan Backlund away from campus, but it didn’t keep him from being productive.

Stuck at home in San Angelo, he decided to put his 3-D printers to work fabricating hundreds of plastic face shields, and then donated them to regional and local medical centers. He got the idea when his physician sister-in-law in Lubbock sent him an article about 3-D-printed face masks.

“I was already familiar with what people around the world were doing with their 3-D printers to help fight COVID-19,” Backlund said, “but that gave me the nudge I needed to join the fight. Later, after seeing several good designs in online forums, I asked her about a need for face shields, and she said that yes, they could use them.”

So the senior in ASU’s mechanical engineering program fired up his three 3-D printers and got to work fabricating two types of face shields – one with a plastic frame that slips onto your head, and one that clips onto the bill of a baseball cap. His first shipment of 300 face shields went to Covenant Hospital in Lubbock on March 26.

Backlund displays the two types of face shields fabricated with his 3-D printers. Backlund displays the two types of face shields fabricated with his 3-D printers. “The first reactions in Lubbock were outstanding,” Backlund said. “They absolutely love the face shields that fit onto the brim of a ball cap. The people in the outdoor testing tents are primarily using them, and compared to the face shields they were being supplied, these were preferred. The hospital-provided ones were too thick, wrinkled easily and were blurry. These that fit onto a cap are very clear, easy to use and also comfortable to wear because most people own a ball cap that fits them well.”

After such a great start, it wasn’t long before friends in San Angelo heard about his face shields and began requesting them for the local hospitals.

“Several people at San Angelo Community Medical Center reached out to me,” Backlund said. “So I sent them several batches to get feedback on what they liked. Seeing the need across the country, and assuming we’d soon face the same needs in San Angelo, is what prompted me to ramp up production to handle anything they needed.”

“It has been a great feeling…Spending too much time collecting data and not taking action was never an option for me.”

Since then, Backlund has fabricated and donated 1,000 face shields for SACMC, 250 shields for Shannon Hospital and Clinic, 100 shields for West Texas Medical Associates, and 100 shields for friends and family.

“From a timing standpoint, they were a very welcome sight!” he said. “Usually, shields must be thrown away every 12 hours. Supplies got so low, there was a desperate need at one point. As thousands of healthcare workers around the country began implementing practices related to the re-use of personal protective equipment (PPE), this batch of donations allowed a portion of our local frontline workers to stop these practices that they had also been implementing for some time.”

Not one to rest on his laurels, Backlund has also branched into fabricating “ear savers,” which are worn around the back of the head and clip onto the straps of a face mask to keep the pressure off your ears. To date, he has donated over 800 ear savers to SACMC, WTMA, a Walgreens Pharmacy in Arizona, a Publix Pharmacy in Georgia, an online collaboration group, and friends and family.

Backlund boxing up ear savers for shipping. Backlund boxing up ear savers for shipping. Besides his 3-D printers, Backlund has used his own tools and supplies to fabricate the face shields and ear savers. He has an extensive set up at his house, and his wife, Jesi, even pitched in to help him get started.

His efforts have also benefitted from local donations of $1,150 that have covered his costs for shipping and materials, including enough materials on hand for about 2,000 more face shields.

“It has been a great feeling,” Backlund said. “More importantly though, people who wanted to contribute but didn’t know how were able to support this venture financially, giving them the satisfaction of directly contributing to the fight against COVID-19. Knowing that I have been the outlet for others to do this has helped motivate me to continue.” 

“At times when I questioned whether I was doing enough, or putting efforts toward the right types of PPE, I reminded myself of a quote by Mark Twain – ‘Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.’ Sometimes a design didn’t quite work well in certain situations. In these cases, another design could be the solution. Spending too much time collecting data and not taking action was never an option for me.”