When the global pandemic caused a shortage in personal protective equipment, researchers from Swinburne University of Technology came to the rescue by partnering with disability provider, Able Australia.
The Swinburne team took a prototype created by Able Australia and developed a simple, low-cost face shield that could be mass produced with any 3D printer, and helped to keep workers in the disability sector safe.
Throughout the global coronavirus pandemic, maintaining interstate and international supply chains has been a significant challenge. While most out-of-stock products like toilet paper or packaged food products are an inconvenience, others like the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) have been potentially life-threatening.
Kate MacRae, CEO of Able Australia, a diverse not-for-profit that provides a range of services to people living with disability, discovered that sourcing supplies for the disability sector was becoming almost impossible.
“When the first wave of the pandemic hit in March, personal protective equipment was in short supply,” MacRae said.
“While the health and aged care sector were given access to the government’s PPE stockpile, the disability sector was excluded. We knew we needed to come up with our own solution.”
Able Australia and other disability support providers support a number of people in high-risk categories for COVID-19. Limiting contact and practicing safe physical distancing is often challenging supporting someone with a complex disability, especially without PPE. The industry needed a solution quickly, to keep their clients and staff safe, if they were to remain operational.
MacRae reached out to her contacts at the Faculty of Health and Arts at Swinburne in Melbourne in April 2020. MacRae and her husband Richard had already developed an initial conceptual prototype for a headband face shield which they wanted to see refined and mass produced by the team at Swinburne.
She was connected with Dr Kwong Ming Tse, a researcher in the Department of Mechanical and Product Design Engineering from the Faculty of Science, Engineering & Technology at Swinburne.
After hearing how the disability sector’s workers were not able to stay safe during the pandemic and seeing the prototype, Tse volunteered to explore a feasible solution for the disability sector in combating the pandemic.
A team of researchers and technical staff from Swinburne, led by Professor Guoxing Lu and Tse, began working on the project.
During the coronavirus lockdown, they sought funding and obtained formal approval from the university for special permission to access campus for discussions and prototyping before mass production. Tse led the effort in designing and manufacturing the product.
Taking the original prototype and inspired by the open-source PRUSA design for a face shield, Tse and Lu were able to advance the design so that it was even lower cost to produce, and easy to print at scale.
Within two weeks, the Swinburne team had finalised its design, prototyping and running trials with workers in the disability sector. The feedback from workers about the practicability and ease of use was very positive.
Tse and the team went to work producing 1,100 units of the product they dubbed ‘Swin Shields’. Swinburne donated the costs of the 3D printing materials, and the design team took care of the 3D printing, quality control and deliveries throughout the printing period.
“The disability sector really appreciates this partnership and the outcome of increasing safety for staff and clients. This was an amazingly generous offer, not only of product, but of service and skill, too,” MacRae said.
“It was a great project to be involved in, helping to meet a critical need of our community, and supporting the safety of the workers and clients in the disability sector. We were really glad and happy to see the big smiles on the workers’ faces,” added Tse.
The team at Swinburne has since been approached by other interested groups from the disability sector and was able to share its design for 3D printing.
Swinburne is ranked in the world’s top 200 for Engineering and Technology according to Times Higher Education subject ranking for 2020.
It is also home to the Factory of the Future, a state-of-the-art design, research and manufacturing facility. It exists to help businesses, students and the wider community to take advantage of Industry 4.0 and digitisation and to explore conceptual ideas for manufacturing next generation products.
Click here to find out more information about the ‘Swin Shields’ project.