See a need, fill a need.
Steven Duclos, the chief scientist for additive manufacturing at GE Research in Niskayuna, was looking for items his department could quickly produce to help in the battle against the novel coronavirus.
Duclos and his team were working on a few options when he arrived at an epiphany — go straight to the source. The daughter of one of his neighbors, Katrina LaBate, is a hospitalist at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany and made for the perfect consultant.
“I said, ‘Why don’t I just talk to her, find out what the needs are,’ ” Duclos said in a Skype interview Thursday. “She came back and said that really, what they need are these face shields."
That set in motion a process in which Duclos’ team at GE Research — with help from other departments at the facility — used 3D printing to produce kits for 400 plastic face shields that were then assembled at the Center for Disability Services in Albany and delivered to Albany Medical Center.
It’s a perfect example, Duclos said, of how communities can band together in unforeseen times.
“I think we’re all learning how to make these connections work in this kind of new environment,” Duclos said. “Here’s an example where it did work.”
“This is something I know we’ll continue in some fashion or form going forward,” GE Research spokesman Todd Alhart said. “Pandemics are tough, but I think this is the good part of it where you bring different organizations and people together who want to make a difference and help their community. That’s really what’s manifested here.”
Duclos and his team worked in conjunction with LaBate to iron out a few kinks with the initial design that helped make the shields simpler and easier to sterilize by exchanging the holes that allowed the plastic shield to connect with a 3D printed headband for a foam band with an elastic headband that allows the shield to connect via an adhesive.
The shields were simple to manufacture, just three pieces. There was just one small roadblock remaining.
“We couldn’t get the plastic,” Duclos said. “Everybody was trying to make face shields, and all orders for plastic were backordered.”
The solution came from another department at the research center. Engineer Nancy Stoffel realized that the electronics lab had plenty of unused plastic on hand from an old project that could work perfectly.
“We were really scratching our heads [trying to find plastic that was] thin enough and clear enough for this application,” Duclos said. “It was just sitting there in one of our labs.”
Stoffel’s team also provided a cutting tool for the plastic, and all of a sudden Duclos and the additive manufacturing team had enough plastic for 600 face shields.
While St. Peter’s had placed an order through another company for face shields and wasn’t in need of a large shipment, Albany Medical Center was glad to accept them.
All that was left was to assemble the shields. With most of his team working from home, Duclos was trying to figure out a way they could get together for assembly, but officials at Albany Med came up with a different solution: Send the kits to a third party, who could assemble them and deliver them to the hospital.
That’s when Maureen O’Brien, CEO and president of New York State Industries for the Disabled, got a call from Albany Med’s supply chain data integrity and technology manager, Ladd Warrick.
NYSID is an Albany-based private, non-profit membership organization that works with more than 135 agencies across the state to provide employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.
“Many of our agencies can fabricate, do kitting, we do janitorial services and a number of different things,” O’Brien said. “Many of our folks work on different projects that are contracted with us through various public and private employers.”
Warrick asked O’Brien if NYSID had a member organization that could work to put the face shields together, and the Center for Disability Services fit the bill.
The first order of 400 face shields was fabricated, assembled and delivered a couple of weeks ago.
“The exercise has been really great for NYSID and the Center for Disability Services, because we believe that this is a task that individuals with disabilities can do really well,” O’Brien said. “It’s something that we could do moving forward as a product that they could fabricate with private companies and supply to front-line and healthcare workers.”
“We are extraordinarily grateful for this generous donation which, like much during this pandemic, is a result of community coming together: GE Research which designed the face shields, and New York State Industries for the Disabled, Inc. (NYSID) and the Center for Disability Services in Albany that teamed up to assemble the face shields,” Dr. Dennis McKenna, president and chief executive officer of Albany Med, said in a statement. “Donations like this are invaluable in helping our frontline workers continue to provide safe, compassionate care to our patients, and the fact that this partnership also provided meaningful jobs to citizens with disabilities makes it all the more impactful.”
GE Research still had enough plastic for another 200 face shields, which will go to NYSID member organizations for use in group homes and other places.
O’Brien said the disabled community is playing a vital role during the pandemic, with many working essential jobs in janitorial services, including at the COVID-19 testing site at the University at Albany.
“The folks we work with are thrilled to be essential workers and working on the front lines during the pandemic,” O’Brien said. “They’re working hard, they’re very committed to what they do and they’re happy that they’re part of a network of people that are making a difference at this time.”
It’s that spirit of community that’s allowed these types of projects to flourish.
“Here’s something that they can be doing,” Duclos said, “to contribute to the well-being of the community.”
Reach Adam Shinder at [email protected] or @Adam_Shinder on Twitter.