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Northeast, STREAMWORKS, others in 3D face shield partnership

Staff Reports • Mar 27, 2020 at 9:30 AM

KINGSPORT — In a laboratory at Northeast State Community College’s Regional Center of Advanced Manufacturing (RCAM) Academy in Kingsport this week, the whirring sound of 3D printing machines turns out detailed products. The same is going on in the STREAMWORKS STEM Gym, also in Kingsport.

That’s not much different from a regular lab day, except the machines were not being used for instruction. Instead, this is for the manufacturing of headgear for face shields used by healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic. It is part of an effort to produce 7,000 face shields.


NSCC instructor Keith Bowery kept watch at the RCAM as the printers formed the headgear using a filament the facility regularly uses for teaching.

“They are made from a polymer material we use in several applications,” said Bowery. “We use the material to print and replace parts on our own equipment.”

The RCAM uses 10 3D printers as teaching tools for students doing laboratory hours. The demand to repurpose the printers into manufacturing tools for healthcare workers happened as the coronavirus outbreak left the healthcare industry scrambling for personal protective equipment. The RCAM labs were freed up this week as the college moved instruction online through the remainder of the spring semester.


The RCAM partnered with STREAMWORKS Powered by Eastman in Education in Kingsport to send five 3D printers to manufacture headgear at the STREAMWORKS STEM Gym. This collaborative effort formed after Gov. Bill Lee tasked state institutions to find new ways to serve Tennesseans during the COVID-19 crisis. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), in concert with the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) and respective universities, located 3D printers to produce face shields by using 3D printers already available at campuses.

To aid in this initiative, Ballad Health purchased two additional high-end 3D printers used at STREAMWORKS. These machines are already running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and are part of a larger group of volunteers from Eastman Chemical Co., Ballad Health, East Tennessee State University, NSCC and Spectra3D Technologies from Weaverville, North Carolina, all working to help get these face shields into the hands of healthcare workers as soon as possible.

“We are grateful to be able to do our part in supporting our region’s heroic healthcare professionals who are working tirelessly and at personal risk during these unprecedented times,” STREAMWORKS Executive Director Dennis Courtney said.

“We started using the RCAM printers at STREAMWORKS on Sunday,” said Heath McMillian, executive director of Economic and Workforce Development at NSCC. “We fired up the five printers here at the Academy on Monday morning.”


At the STEM Gym, D-B EXCEL student Quintin Folkner operated a laser printer programmed to cut notches in the screen material to connect the headgear and splash guard into a functioning face shield.

“I’m studying technology applications, especially underwater robotics, which got me very interested in it,” said Folkner, who plans to attend NSCC this fall.

McMillian and Courtney said the production targets have shifted to producing shields and possible other personal protection equipment for local healthcare workers. Courtney has set the goal of manufacturing 500 face shields per week at the STEM Gym.

Bowery has taught computer-assisted design and 3D printing for more than 10 years at NSCC. He is one of many industry professionals who brought his knowledge to the college following a diverse career in industrial manufacturing.

“We are going to make as many as we can as fast as we can,” Bowery said. “I’m going to keep them until they tell me to quit or I run out of material.”


The THEC announced last week that public postsecondary institutions across the state would utilize existing 3D printers to augment the medical supply for Tennesseans. NSCC joined the project along with fellow TBR institutions including the Tennessee Center for Applied Technology (TCAT) at Elizabethton; TCAT Shelbyville; TCAT Murfreesboro; and TCAT Jackson. Four-year institutions producing face shields include Austin Peay State University; ETSU; Tennessee Technological University; University of Memphis; and University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

After three days of intensive, around-the-clock efforts that included a range of community and business partners, the effort produced more than 1,500 critically needed pieces of protective equipment. Bowery took his work home with him. He started printing headgear last Friday on his personal 3-D printer, a practice he plans to continue as needs be.

 “I can keep them printing at night and on the weekends,” he said.

Meanwhile, Courtney got the call on Saturday to convert his STEM Gym teaching laboratory into a medical supply manufacturer. Once the RCAM printers were set up, the headgear and shields manufacturing went live. Within hours, RCAM and STREAMWORKS Education converted their educational environments into medical manufacturing facilities.

“Two weeks ago I never would have envisioned we would be making medical face shields,” Courtney said. “But here we are producing 24 hours a day trying to get as many out there as we can.”


Courtney ferried approximately 70 face shields to Knoxville Tuesday for transport to health care workers in Nashville. The central packaging of the items delivered on Tuesday happened at Austin Peay, the campus that originated the prototype. The gear was delivered directly to the Tennessee Department of Health.

At RCAM and the STEM Gym, 3D printers continue crafting headgear. A 3D laser printer details and produces the face shields designed to attach to the headgear pieces. The screen material used in the manufacture of the headgear and shields manufactured at RCAM and STEM Gym can be sterilized and reused.

“If you have the capability or you can adapt and be flexible with the capabilities you have, then why wouldn’t you?” Courtney asked. “We’ve found a way you could manufacture these masks and we could turn a STEM education facility into modified medical products manufacturing facility.”


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