The global protective equipment shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a local 3D printing and engineering company to ramp up its printers to create free supplies like face shields for donation to those who need them.

Nemotech LLC, located at 5734 S. Main St. in Joplin, partners with clientele in industrial sectors such as manufacturing, medical, defense and consumer products. The company was founded by Joplin attorney Scott Vorhees and former EaglePicher engineer Mike Parrot in November 2017.

The $2.2 trillion coronavirus response bill won’t aid hospitals and states with protective equipment because the problem isn’t lack of money, experts say. It’s that there’s not enough of those supplies available to buy, according to The Associated Press. This is where 3D printing is useful because not only is it fast-paced, if you can imagine it, you can print it, Parrot said.

“We can either 3D scan it or design it from scratch,” said Daniel Hawkins, Nemotech’s lead 3D systems engineer. “We have a lot of different capabilities.”

Nemotech is acting after seeing the pandemic’s impact on health care systems in other countries. The local company recently began making thousands of face shields to donate to health care workers, medical providers, nursing homes and anyone else who needs them.

“We want to make sure we can get ahead of it, too, if at all possible, because even if the local hospitals don’t have it now, we’re seeing the cases double and triple,” Vorhees said. “I saw today (Monday) there’s over 1,000 confirmed cases in Missouri now.”

The concept is simple. The 3D printers weave headbands out of plastic coupled with a protective, transparent barrier. Instead of printing each headband individually, the company developed a way to produce 30 at a time every 36 hours through a stacking method. With 12 machines running 24/7, the team can make more than 1,500 face shields a week.

The plastic material is also biodegradable. Nemotech has been collecting school districts' leftover transparency films that were used on overhead projectors. With the shortage of face masks already, the shields can serve as an additional layer of protection against the coronavirus.

“There are other designs, but ours is slightly faster than most of them that are available now, and it conforms to the face a little better,” Vorhees said. “We wanted to make sure that our source code was available in case people in other places needed it.”

Choices Medical Services and Americare Senior Living are currently in talks with Nemotech to receive face shields, and the company is working on a face mask that could be an equivalent to N95 masks.

“Face shields are our big focus right now,” Hawkins said. “We are trying to crack the code on face masks, as well, but there’s a lot more that goes into that, unfortunately. We have a long way to go before that’s ready. That research is ongoing.”

The overall goal is to get members of the community involved to help out in their own way, whether that be assembling face shields, donating supplies or 3D printing their own masks with an available open source template on the company’s website. Even individuals with just a hole-punch and time can contribute to the effort.

Hawkins said that “3D printing businesses can and should help during the pandemic. Right now for us, we can. I’m hoping it’s not just businesses out there who make these, but individuals who have 3D printers at home. If everyone does their part and pitches in everything we can, we’ll get through this a lot faster. We have a template, and it just takes a hole-punch. You punch eight holes, and it snaps over the connectors. You can make a face shield in 30 seconds when you have all of the materials.”

Learning opportunities

Missouri Southern State University and Kansas City University-Joplin are collaborating with the company to test the effectiveness of sterilization methods on prototypes. Because they are porous, 3D-printed parts are difficult to effectively sterilize, and past attempts have been unsuccessful, Hawkins said.

“We’re recommending that any end user does their own sterilization procedure,” he said. “3D prints can be challenging to effectively sterilize due to the way that they’re manufactured. It’s difficult to get sterilization into every pore. We’re focusing primarily on the sterilization of the masks just because of the proximity of your face and your lungs.”

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News reporter

Kimberly Barker is a news reporter for The Globe who covers Northeast Oklahoma, Southeast Kansas, as well as Carl Junction, Carthage and Webb City.