Corridor orgs fire up 3D printers, CNCs to produce protective gear

3D printers provided by the Cedar Rapids Community School District pump out prototypes in the cafe of the Geonetric building in Cedar Rapids on March 23. PHOTO Eric Engelmann/Facebook.


By Adam Moore

Corridor companies and groups are racing to produce personal protective equipment for the region’s workers as the COVID-19 pandemic saps supplies around the country.

Responding to an “urgent request” over the weekend from University of Iowa Health Care leaders seeking more protective face shields, a group of dozens organized by Eric Engelmann of NewBoCo and others has begun prototyping basic face shield designs that can be produced on 3D printers.

The informal group began its work Sunday afternoon, printing prototypes across 40 3D printers across the state, according to a Facebook post. In an interview, Mr. Engelmann said that they should have four finalized prototypes available to share with local hospitals as soon as the afternoon of March 24, to see if there’s a strong preference for any of the designs.

Once a design is selected, the distributed group of participants could, in theory, produce up to 300 masks a day, assuming the raw materials are still available in stores, according to Mr. Engelmann, and potentially thousands if “we corralled everyone in Iowa that has the ability to make them.”

“I really hope it doesn’t come to that,” he added.

The work has been assisted through volunteer efforts by many in the community, and early donations of roughly $3,000, according to Mr. Engelmann. Tara Troester, a career and technical education content lead with the Cedar Rapids Community School District, helped to secure 13 new Prusa 3D printers, which had arrived at the district’s facilities just before their closure. Würth Industry in Des Moines has also committed its 3D printers to the effort.

“Right now, they would have just been sitting in storage,” Ms. Troester said. “When there was a call for what needed to be done, we thought this would be a great way to help.”

Other collaborators include Aaron Horn, COO of NewBoCo; Gerald Beranek, CEO of Cedar Rapids-based BeraTek Industries; Tom Lutz, founder of Repour; Michael Ott, CEO of Iowa City-based Rantizo; and Morgana Tjaden with Alburnett Schools. Employees with Collins Aerospace have also been involved with the effort.

Mr. Engelmann emphasized that the face masks being produced are designed to be temporary, noting that “ideally, [health care systems] will be able to buy pro-grade stuff,” but that the capabilities of the ad-hoc group assembled will allow it to meet immediate and urgent demands in the state.

Meanwhile, in North Liberty, print and sign shop AlphaGraphics has been busy responding to demand for its new acrylic “window panels,” designed to offer protection to office and retail employees who are still required to interact with the public.

Owner Dennis Tallman said that the pivot came over the weekend as he was “wondering how I keep the doors open, and not lay people off.” It occurred to him that the company already had the ability to cut acrylic panels with a CNC machine, and he quickly teamed with employees to design the simple 24- by 36-inch panels, which can also be taken apart for cleaning. It is now selling them through its digital channels for $99.

AlphaGraphics North Liberty, which counts a staff of seven, has already received strong interest from companies and health care offices as far away as the Quad Cities, Mr. Tallman said. He estimated that the company can produce about five units from a 4- by 8-foot sheet of acrylic in about 10 minutes.

“It’s not a product we’ve ever made, obviously,” Mr. Tallman said. “At the end of day, as a small business and an entrepreneur, you try to adapt and move, and being the type of business we are, we can make these changes very quickly.” CBJ