Problem solving, turbocharged

A healthcare solution born in an ETH student workshop has now entered mass production: the helpfulETH initiative is supporting hospitals during the coronavirus crisis by producing special face shields. ETH Zurich is working on the project alongside the University of Applied Sciences Rapperswil (HSR Rapperswil), Geberit and Swiss Prime Pack.
Three employees of the hospital in Männedorf with face shields

As part of the helpfulETH initiative, a student workshop on Hönggerberg campus began producing face shields for hospitals at the end of March (see the ETH news article from 7 April 2020). The project has been expanded, and the face shields are now being mass produced. Members of the ETH community have worked together with HSR Rapperswil, Geberit and Swiss Prime Pack to set up a manufacturing process that can produce at least 1,000 face shields per day if required. This project is based on doctors’ requests for personal protective equipment during the corona crisis. Around 20 hospitals and care facilities have been supplied with masks since March.

Fighting back against shortages

When the coronavirus pandemic reached Europe this past March, hospitals began to amass resources for treating COVID-19 patients, and ensuring a steady supply of protective equipment became a critical issue. The global flow of goods was impaired, with some shipments bound for Switzerland even being held up at the borders. “We didn't know if we would have enough protective equipment to last beyond the week,” explains Sven Staender, anaesthetist and intensive care physician at the hospital in Männedorf. According to Staender, people were even circulating guides on how to build your own face protection. Since the coronavirus spreads primarily via respiratory droplets, it is especially important for healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients to protect their faces.

In mid-March, helpfulETH – a joint initiative between ETH Zurich and EPF Lausanne – was launched in order to provide hospitals and other healthcare facilities with engineering solutions to combat the coronavirus crisis. “We got a call from a doctor who was facing a shortage of protective face shields at his hospital,” explains Stephan Wegner, a co-founder of the initiative. Thus the face shield project was born. Developed with input from doctors, the first iteration of the shield was launched at Makerspace – a student workshop on Hönggerberg campus – on 27 March. According to Marvin Breuch, a mechanical engineering student who manages Makerspace at the Student Project House, just over 200 pieces could be produced daily using the workshop's 3D printer. Using this method, 17 volunteers have been able to produce around 1,000 face shields for hospitals so far. But with the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, more needed to be done to prepare for the possibility of increased demand.

Using existing resources to maximise efficiency

Torbjörn Netland, Professor of Production and Operations Management at ETH, was consulted to help expand production capacity for the shields. “My approach was to rely on existing resources and knowledge,” he explains. With this in mind, outreach was done to contact organisations that could meaningfully contribute to the project, with HSR Rapperswil, Geberit and Swiss Prime Pack showing immediate interest. HSR Rapperswil and the team at ETH worked on product development together. Instead of using 3D printing, it was decided to produce the frame of the face shield using the injection moulding process. Geberit provided their expertise and manufacturing facilities: they made the component production-ready and set about manufacturing it. Packaging producer Swiss Prime Pack provided the PET visor portion of the shield. The first 150 shields from the new production process were delivered in mid-June. Around 5,000 shields remain ready to be delivered within days and can be ordered by Swiss-based hospitals and care facilities free of charge.

The starting capital for ETH’s face shield project was provided by the Feasibility Lab, which is where the helpfulETH initiative originally got started. According to Netland, the rest of the project was made possible through people’s sense of solidarity. “People at all the organisations in the project have put in days and weeks of volunteer work,” he explains.  Raw materials were provided free of charge by the companies involved. Netland described the personal payoff for himself in idealistic terms. “It makes me proud that we can come together in a crisis and successfully establish this kind of project in such a short timeframe, where everyone is investing a huge amount of time and energy to help other people,” he says.

Relief for hospitals

The face shields provided by helpfulETH came as a great relief to the hospital in Männedorf. “I heard about the face shield offer from my colleagues at the Limmattal hospital,” explains Staender. “So I reached out, and shortly thereafter we could pick up the shields. Just 48 hours later the shields were in use at our hospital.” The face shields were used where the need was the greatest: treating COVID-19 patients in intensive care. Staender confirms that the masks are still in use, for instance in the operating theatre. He says that the face shields are also excellent compared to the protective goggles that were previously in use, as the shields allow for unobscured vision and more freedom of movement. “And they were even produced in two colours,” he muses. “Even during a crisis you can appreciate a certain level of design at the workplace.”