How Hamilton County Schools is using 3-D printers to create needed medical supplies amid the coronavirus pandemic

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / East Hamilton Middle/High School eLab Specialist Patrick Daverson, right, checks a 3-D printer at The STEM School on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Hamilton County Schools complied 3-D printers from around the district and set up a "3-D printing farm" at The STEM School to help produce face shields for local health practitioners in the fight against the coronavirus.

Inside the STEM School, Hamilton County's science-focused high school nestled on Chattanooga State Community College's campus, dozens of 3-D printers, gathered from across the school district and the community, are churning.

Like previous wartime efforts - victory gardens, women-led factories and scrap metal collections - the printers are manufacturing a public service.

This time though, they are printing personal protective equipment to help local medical professionals fight the new coronavirus sweeping the nation.

The effort, led by Michael Stone of the Public Education Foundation (PEF) of Chattanooga and dozens of educators who work in the district's 16 Volkswagen eLabs, is a grassroots one that has developed since health care workers and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first started predicting an impending medical equipment shortage earlier this month.

The idea is to use approved materials to 3-D print 500 face shields, which cover health care workers' eyes and are used in addition to surgical masks or N95 respirators, for Erlanger Health System by Monday.

And the eLab specialists are also working round-the-clock to produce a usable N95 respirator.

So far, they've created several iterations - some have even been tested by Erlanger hospital executives - but they haven't worked yet, Stone told the Times Free Press.

"The first prototype had major holes in it," Stone said. "But it sparked a big conversation among eLab specialists, community experts and medical personnel."

Schools participating in the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s efforts:

— Austin Peay State University— East Tennessee State University— TCAT Elizabethton— TCAT Jackson— TCAT Shelbyville— TCAT Morristown— TCAT Murfreesboro— Tennessee Technological University— University of Memphis— University of Tennessee - Knoxville

"Then we create a second iteration and a third iteration, which is wearable," Stone continued.

It uses N95-compliant material that screws in two spots on the side of the mask, which would make the mask reusable.

But Stone said the respirators are in the early phases. He wouldn't be personally comfortable relying on it yet.

"You have to go through a fit test. It has to create an airtight seal," he said. Stone can demonstrate the test on-site at the STEM School now, with kits provided by Erlanger. District officials anticipate they will be mass-producing a mask next week.

Both the masks and the face shields cost under $1 each to create. Face shields take about four hours to print and require some assembly by the specialists staffing the "printer farm," as they affectionately call it.

Hamilton County Schools' Chief Innovation Officer Jill Levine first saw other districts experimenting with similar projects and wondered why Hamilton County couldn't do it.

Hamilton County has one of the largest number of digital fabrication labs in one area, stocked with high-tech equipment including the 3-D printers, laser cutters, CNC routers and other supplies typically being used by students to create and innovate all kinds of projects while schools are open.

"We have more digital fabrication labs than anywhere in the world. As the world leader in digital fabrication, we should be able to do something about this," Levine said. "This could be a real great service to our community and could help out in a real significant way."

The district has gathered nearly 100 3-D printers at the STEM School thanks to community partners and even hobbyists who might have machines at home. The district is also working with other countries that are grappling with shortages of medical supplies through the International Fab Lab Network.

Personal protective equipment supplies, such as surgical masks and N95 respirators, are expected to dwindle in hospitals at the epicenters of the U.S. outbreak. Such supplies are critical to protect physicians, nurses and other medical providers as they treat patients diagnosed with COVID-19.

The federal and state governments have already issued orders for such supplies, and local organizations such as the Tennessee Valley Authority are donating supplies or funds to purchase them. But in many cases, mass producers are already working on backlogs of orders.

On March 23, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) announced that public post-secondary institutions, such as the state's Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCAT), will be using existing 3-D printers to start supplying needed equipment, as well.

"In unprecedented times, Tennessee higher education is united in doing our part to support the state's brave health care professionals," said Mike Krause, executive director of THEC, in a statement. "Our colleges and universities have always been incubators for innovation, and this is a perfect example of the ingenuity and dedication of that work. The credit for this incredible effort goes to the leaders of the colleges, universities and systems, our faculty who have worked tirelessly this weekend, and community volunteers who have also stepped up."

This effort is a result of Gov. Bill Lee's request to find new ways to serve Tennesseans during the COVID-19 crisis, Krause said.

The Tennessee Board of Regents and respective universities began to locate their own 3-D printers last week and began work on creating 1,500 face shields using the 3-D printers in just three days.

That first batch was completed Wednesday and is expected to be centrally packaged at Austin Peay State University before the supplies are delivered directly to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

"After three days of intensive around-the-clock efforts" that included a range of community and business partners, the effort produced critically needed pieces of PPE for health care professionals in only three days.

Intense efforts will continue in the coming days and weeks, Krause added.

At least 10 colleges and universities in Tennessee are partnering in the effort.

"Our colleges – all of whom were busy preparing for the shift to online education – stepped up, expanded their focus and jumped into action to help. Many nurses, doctors and other health professionals are alumni of our colleges and we're delighted to help protect them and their colleagues who are doing so much to protect us all," said Flora Tydings, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Locally, Hamilton County Schools is striving to do the same unprecedented work. Levine said the district even has potential donors lined up to help fund the work.

Stone credits school officials and the eLab specialists for the progress the district is making to find a solution. He notes their commitment to their students, even though they aren't able to engage them physically in this work.

"The eLab specialists are really a tight knit community of teachers. ...They've been meeting regularly [and] their meetings have focused on two things, this project and how they can engage students remotely," he said.

Though Hamilton County Schools' own small operation hasn't gotten a respirator prototype quite right yet, Stone is hopeful. He said the ball is rolling.

"There is actually a lot of pushback [in the community] on the type of material being used, and some have a deficient mindset approach to it," Stone said. "Hamilton County Schools leadership has been clear that you jump in and make a difference immediately. You build the ship while you're sailing it."

Holding one of the failed prototypes, Stone said that particular mask won't be the one that doctors end up using.

"But [the fact] that we are printing this mask is keeping the ball moving. It will help to solve the problem," he said. "We have a clear plan of action, it's an example of what that looks like and the long-term implications could save lives."

Contact Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.