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Penn Libraries News

Librarians at Large: 3D-Printing Personal Protective Equipment from Home

Photo of Varvara modeling plastic face shield with 3D printed headband.

Varvara Kountouzi never imagined she’d be running a 3D printing operation out of her spare bedroom. 

As Head of Digital Media & Virtual Services team at Penn’s Biomedical Library, Kountouzi has years of experience working with 3D printers — on campus. Though she’s dedicated to her work, there was never cause for Kountouzi to consider establishing her own high-tech cottage industry.

The moment that the COVID-19 crisis became apparent locally, however, Kountouzi mobilized her team to identify medical equipment designs they might have the capacity to print from home. 

At the same time, Carolyn Cannuscio at the Center for Public Health Initiatives was reaching out to various groups and departments on campus to organize the design and production of protective gear for medical personnel. Cannuscio brought the Biomedical Library onboard by connecting with Barbara Cavanaugh, Assistant University Librarian for Health Sciences & STEM Libraries, via Twitter. 

Victoria Berenholz at Penn Health Tech simultaneously created a Slack channel to facilitate interdepartmental communication. “Engineering joined, and that’s when things really took off,” Kountouzi says. The channel crackled with ideas.

Those in conversation ultimately split into four groups, each focused on a different piece of equipment: face shields, surgical masks, ventilator adaptors (which allow multiple patients to use a single machine), and mobile devices for doctor-patient telecommunication. 

Kountouzi and her team — 3D-printing intern Corey Abramowitz and Visualizationist Lexi Voss — joined the group working on face shields. The shields both provide a first line of defense against the novel coronavirus and extend the lifespan of surgical masks.

As the group began brainstorming, Kountouzi shared a design she’d found online for constructing shields: a headband, worn horizontally, which slots into sheets perforated with a standard three-hole punch. “There will likely be a modified design that goes into mass production,” explains Kountouzi, “but the simplicity of this one makes it ideal for home manufacture.”

The problem remained one of logistics: Kountouzi’s printers were on campus, and campus was on lockdown. Many hours and many, many messages later, she was granted access to retrieve four machines. Kountouzi coordinated with Penn Libraries’ Director of Facilities Management Sal Caputo to transport the printers to her house using the Libraries’ book delivery van. 

Power is also a delimiting factor, since most domestic electrical systems can’t provide the electricity required to run multiple 3D printers at once. “I did consult with our tech about electricity requirements before bringing our second largest printer [a Stratasys uPrint SE Plus] home,” says Kountouzi. “He said it would work — if I made sure that nothing else is plugged in in that room. So now my spare bedroom belongs to the Stratasys.”

Bedroom with 3D printer set up.
The Stratasys uPrint SE Plus set up in Kountouzi's home.


Kountouzi has set up another printer, the Ultimaker 3 Extended, in her basement. “The Ultimaker, unfortunately, needs more babysitting,” she says. “Now I know what it feels like to have an infant.” Kountouzi has been spending her days running downstairs and up to make sure that the machines are functioning smoothly and to remove prints as they’re completed. 

If both machines “behave,” Kountouzi can produce 25 headbands a day. The other two remain on reserve.

Abramowitz and Voss have also configured printers in their houses for headband production, and Voss tackled the problem of obtaining the plastic sheets which lock onto the headbands to form the shield: in light of the sudden demand, most vendors are currently out of stock. Voss successfully located a supplier in Woodland Park, New Jersey, and drove nearly four hours round-trip to procure the rest of their inventory. 

Additionally, Sarah Reidell, Margy E. Meyerson Head of Conservation, coordinated with Caputo and the Libraries Facilities crew to donate several dozen plastic sheets from the Libraries’ Steven Miller Conservation Laboratory. Conservators typically use the material for the construction of book cradles, tilts, and exhibit mounts. 

“With all of these plastic sheets, our team now has the materials to make a few thousand headbands at least,” says Kountouzi. “Fortunately, I’m a hoarder, so I already had a backstock of filament for the headbands.”

In order to maintain social distance, Kountouzi collects her team’s headband prints in a bin on her porch. She inspects them for quality and then packages them in bags to be hand-delivered to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, and Pennsylvania Hospital.  

Abramowitz and Voss have also joined the transportation team, a subset of the cross-campus supply chain team being run by student volunteers. Abramowitz and Voss are responsible for the transportation of materials between supply points and of finished parts to quality-control checkpoints. 

Kountouzi passed off the first package of 100 shields on Sunday, March 29, and production continues steadily. Her team’s efforts have earned Kountouzi coverage and accolades, though she adamantly resists taking too much credit.

“I cannot stress enough how much work so many people are putting into this across campus,” she says. “From the Libraries staff who are donating time, materials, and energy to supporting shield production, to the engineers who are working 20 hours a day on masks and ventilators, to our brilliant student volunteers who are handling supply chain logistics. This is truly a collaborative effort.”