Biomedical engineering, mechanics postdocs, students adapt lab spaces to 3D print PPE parts
By Laura Weatherford
The philosophy of the Verbridge Laboratory of Integrated Tumor Ecology, led by associate biomedical engineering and mechanics professor Scott Verbridge, goes like this: “Engineering principles can help us understand and treat disease. Biological principles can help us advance engineering.”
Anand Vadlamani, a postdoctoral researcher in the Verbridge lab, lives by that philosophy in the pursuit of his research, as he studies alternative uses of non-ionizing radiation and electrical properties of cells to address infectious diseases and cancer.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Vadlamani has shown his commitment to a second philosophy, coined by Virginia Tech: Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
When the pandemic hit, Vadlamani joined efforts to respond. He worked with biomedical engineering and mechanics graduate students Conner Edsall and Kedar Vaidya to collect and set up 3D printers to manufacture face shield headpieces. Their nine printers run 24/7, and each week, Vadlamani and his peers are able to print 100 to 150 face shield headpieces. The 3D printers and lab space were primarily donated by biomedical engineering and mechanics faculty, including Raffaella De Vita, Eli Vlaisavljevich, Chris Arena, and Scott Verbridge.
Their printing efforts feed into a coordinated COVID-19 response by a large group of Virginia Tech faculty, students, and staff, many from the College of Engineering, who are carrying out 10 projects in rapid science and production to provide the local medical community with personal protective equipment and ventilator supplies. In response to the pandemic and its effects worldwide, numerous research projects have arisen across disciplines at Virginia Tech.
“As a cancer research lab, we’re driven by a desire to help people,” said Verbridge. “What Anand has managed to do — figuring out a way for our lab, which normally works on engineering approaches to treating cancer — enables us to still make a positive contribution to the health and safety of our community, despite our other work being on hold due to the pandemic. I’m impressed with his initiative and so happy to see the products of this hard work reaching medical professionals. We’re honored to be part of the larger effort at Virginia Tech, and proud of how this institution is living up to its motto of Ut Prosim.”
“It’s been amazing to see how many people said yes when asked if they would help,” Vadlamani said. “We’ve basically converted our BEAM lab space into a 3D printing shop. A graduate student even gave us permission to borrow his hobby 3D printers for this, and one of my friends who heard what we were doing here bought and shipped two more printers to us. People have really come together, sharing designs and resources, to solve this problem.”
The original design for the face shields was created and shared in an open-source format by Czech company Prusa in March. Vadlamani credits the collaborative Virginia Tech face shield project team, led by student William Chapin, for modifying these designs using feedback obtained by mechanical engineering professor Alexander Leonessa from his extensive network of medical professionals. The face shield project team confirmed a single design for production, which underwent patient safety and regulatory review. Their design prints a thicker shield holder for added comfort and serves as a multi-use design, one that can be sterilized for reuse, if needed, Vadlamani said.
“I never used a 3D printer before this,” Vadlamani said. “The first few days, I had to learn a lot to keep them running, but our faculty was in full support of this effort and now we’re printing at maximum capacity with minimal issue. We are looking to source printers from anywhere to expand our production, because the predictions of how many face shields will be needed changes daily. We’re now looking to ramp up mask production. Our hope was that these would never be needed, but they are needed. So, here we are, trying to help.”