As the world battles COVID-19 and all of the levels of health and economic uncertainty that entails, it can be difficult to find ways of helping out on an individual basis (beyond staying home, that is).
But, as hospitals and other front-line operations find themselves in need of hard-to-find personal protective equipment (PPE), UMBC makers from all types of work backgrounds are pitching in the best way they know how. Whether sewing up a storm or finding creative uses for kitty litter boxes, these are just a few stories of how Retriever Nation is using special engineering and craft skills, tools, and grit to help in the fight against COVID-19.
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Lending a Technical Hand
At Potomac Photonics, an alumni-owned fabrication operation located in the bwtech@UMBC business park, a typical day might involve anything from piercing 10,000 tiny holes in a single sheet of steel to the microfabrication of complex parts for equipment and biotech applications. When COVID-19 struck, and the nationwide dearth of PPE in hospitals became front page news, owner Mike Adelstein ’96, biochemistry and molecular biology, jumped into action.
His shop produced several thousand protective face shields in the first few weeks of the pandemic, shipping to hospitals in Maryland, New York, and Florida. And the microfluidic chips they’re working on with another client will be used for testing related to finding a vaccine or cure.
“The entire Potomac Photonics family feels a deep sense of obligation and pride when it comes to helping others. Whether we are working on products related to COVID-19 or early detection of cancer, one of the recurring themes that you will hear from our staff is how rewarding it is to be involved in the manufacturing of parts used to save lives,” says Adelstein.
“We have an extremely diverse company with people from many different backgrounds and education levels. However, we are all united in our desire to make a difference by working together and coming up with innovative manufacturing solutions that enable our customers [to get] their complex products to the market.”
Meanwhile, in Corey Fleischer’s own home workshop, he and his kids are producing low-cost protective face shields for healthcare workers in need. Using an elastic band, a clear binder sleeve, and a 3-D printed frame, they’re printing parts on three machines “around the clock,” he says.
You might recognize Fleischer ’05, ’08 M.S. mechanical engineering, from his win on the Discovery Channel’s Big Brain Theory a few years back. As a mechanical engineer by trade, he owns a lot of exciting tools for playing around with designs at home, as well.
“My father in-law, Joe, works at a retirement center and the healthcare workers weren’t allowed to help the residents without wearing a face shield. Every store and online vendor was sold out so he reached out to me,” Fleischer says. “[My son] Aidan and I sketched out some concepts that would provide a solution with items we could find at Walmart. We decided to make face shields out of 3-ring binder sleeves.”
Three designs and six hours after the phone call, they had 10 masks ready. Since then, Fleischer and his kids Aidan, Kaleb, and Camden have made around 100 more masks for two local retirement homes, and two hospitals.
“I would encourage anyone with fabrication resources to help out if they can,” says Fleischer, who has made his design available for other 3-D printer enthusiasts to use. “There’s a lot of how-to information on the internet for making face shields and face masks. And lots of workers on the front line need them.”
Sewing as Fast as They Can
As some folks are programming their 3-D printers, others are breaking out their trusty sewing machines to construct fabric masks for hospitals, nursing homes, friends, and family. And for senior political science major and Sondheim Scholar Marly Milic, the act of sewing masks is not only a way of giving back, but a way of connecting with a loved one.
“I can sew by hand and have a little experience on the machine from when my Ma taught me when I was younger,” said Milic. “Once we saw that hospitals were asking for fabric masks, we both decided that we needed to help. She got a jump start on me because she already had supplies and tools. I ordered my first sewing machine and some materials and got to work right away.”
She sewed her first few masks by hand, but has now taken her production up significantly with her machine. Both she and her mother are sending their masks to Domesticity fabric studio in Lauraville, and Milic also shared some with a neighbor who is a truck driver.
“There are people risking their lives every day to take care of the sick and keep our state running… This is what I can do to help, and as a Sondheim [Scholar] there is no way that I could sit this out,” says Milic, who also very much enjoys her mom’s company during her hours at the sewing machine.
“We actually Skype and sew together so yes, we are very much doing this together.”
Christine Obriecht, a research assistant at UMBC’s Molecular Characterization and Analysis Complex, started sewing masks as soon as she heard there was a need. And then—because she adores sewing and experimenting—she didn’t stop there.
“My boss showed me a picture of a headband that medical personnel can wear to make mask-wearing more comfortable. The headband has buttons one can hook the mask elastic to, instead of hooking it around their poor chafed ears. I plan to make some of those to see how well they are received. I have had one request for a scrub cap. I will try that, too. And so the ideas flow in,” says Obriecht, who has donated her work to a local hospital, but also a number of her elderly neighbors.
“I don’t really care who gets the masks, as long as they go to people who need them and who are trying to help,” she says.
Help in Unexpected Forms
Bennett Moe ’88, graphic design, found his coronavirus volunteer calling from a Facebook post. After reading about a Boy Scout creating “ear savers”—plastic contraptions that wrap around the back of the head to make the wearing of the stretchy elastic of face masks a little less uncomfortable—a chat with a nurse friend confirmed the need.
Moe, who recently started a side business creating collectible die cast models, replacement gauge lenses for vintage trucks, and other vintage-inspired items, saw a sudden use for his new tabletop laser cutter. Within hours, he had tested a design out first in clear acrylic, and then— wait for it—the far sturdier plastic of a kitty litter box.
“Seriously. Necessity is the mother of invention!” says Moe, who found the plastic to be pliable but thick enough to be durable. With materials in stock, he estimates he can produce 500 to 1,000 ear savers a week in his off hours for area hospital workers.
“It feels good to be able to contribute, even in this small way, when so much around us seems out of our control,” says Moe, a former president of the UMBC Alumni Association Board.
“I’m not very good at sitting and watching the world go by, so when my friend tagged me in that post, it was almost like a challenge. I knew there had to be a way that I could make this thing—this little thing that hardly anyone even knew was even a thing, but could make someone’s job just a little bit more bearable. And the folks that are out there helping patients every single day deserve all the help they can get.”
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Header image: Potomac Photonics employee tests out one of the masks they manufactured. Courtesy of Potomac Photonics.