African Physics Newsletter

Protecting Health Care Workers in the Pandemic

At the University of the Witwatersrand, engineering and physics students and professors mobilized to produce personal protective equipment that were lacking due to the pandemic.

Many of us, as physicists, have taught young engineers. At the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, engineers have formed a strong team in South Africa’s national emergency, and the African Physics Newsletter has followed up.

An amazing sense of social solidarity and patriotism has pervaded South Africa recently with many people offering their knowledge and skills to aid the country in its fight against the coronavirus. The escalating spread of the virus has increased the demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies as more people test positive for COVID-19 daily.

Shortage of protective equipments

Healthcare facilities in the country are seeing a shortage in these supplies for their staff. On Friday, 27 March 2020, Netcare911, one of the South African healthcare facilities currently experiencing a massive shortage of protective gear, called on the 3D printing community to assist with printing head rings for face shields foruse by medical staff treating patients with COVID-19.

Teams at Wits from the Digital Incubator at the Tshimologong Precinct, the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Aeronautical Engineering (MIA) along with the Transnet Centre of Systems Engineering (TCSE) and the Transnet Matlafatso Centre (TMC) heeded the call and used their engineering prowess to assist with a solution to the problem. Recognising that each head ring for the face shields would take approximately 90 minutes to produce and with limited 3D printing capacity, a team -made up of Guy Richards, Letlotlo Phohole, Moses Mogotlane, Palesa Riba and Randall Paton, decided on a laser cut solution that would save time.

Rapid prototyping processes

"We wanted to use what is readily available to us, cheap to make, and light-weight. Most of all, we wanted to produce a complete product. We also anticipated long printing times with a 3D printer and possible filament shortages given the national drive for face shields and masks," said Letlotlo Phohole, Acting Director of TCSE and TMC. After numerous attempts on Monday, 30 March, to cut the shield from downloaded files from GitHub and Thingiverse - a software development platform where over 40 million developers collaborate on line to host and review code, manage projects, and build software - the Wits team re-designed the original designs, applying rapid prototyping processes, which they then cut using their laser cutter.

The face shields, which are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) sheeting, are a flat pack consisting of two pieces that can be rapidly assembled. "The School had stock of the PVC sheeting from another earlier project. The shields are therefore being provided at no cost to the hospitals," says Paton.

Best safety practices

Adhering to best safety practices is crucial in the production of these face shields. "We ensure that after production the face shields are washed, rinsed, and dried to remove any potentially harmful residue from the laser cutting. This is done in a production line fashion and is now the tightest bottleneck in the project, given that we only have one working laser cutter," added Paton.

With an average production time of 3 minutes (including setup time) to cut a set of pieces for each face shield, the team anticipates making 200 to 500 shields a day to help meet the growing demand of protective gear for medical staff. Four days after the call, by Tuesday, 31 March, the Wits team had produced and distributed 140 face shields.

Delivery to hospitals and medical centres

By 23 April, over 1200 face shields had been delivered to Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, Helen Joseph Hospital, Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital, and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. In addition, the Wits University Protection Services, ICT (Info, Comms and Telecoms services), Campus Health, and Reproductive Health Institute have been supplied.

Paton says, “We are also delivering 200 today to equip the health student volunteers that will be working in oral hygiene and general clinical work, basically at the hospitals, from 23 April.”

Family was afraid

What is it like to participate in the project? One of the people who stepped up to the challenge, despite very real concerns, is Khanani Machumele, a Ph.D. candidate in medicinal chemistry.

“One of the challenges I faced personally was fear. My family was very concerned about me volunteering in this project because they were worried that I might be exposed to people with COVID-19. Initially, I had no idea what I would be doing which fuelled the fear in my family members. Once I knew what I'll be doing exactly they were better and a bit proud of me.”

Being able to assist

The spirit of helping others has permeated the project. Khanani says, "For me the personal aspect of the project means being able to assist in making a positive difference in society.”

Dr. Rodney Genga, who is the Director of Academic Development Unit in Faculty of Engineering and the Built-Environment, also joined the team, hands-on. “This project has given me an opportunity to help others (health professionals) who are risking their health and possibly their lives to help our country. So, I am glad to assist.”

From physics to engineering

Team member Tshwarela Koloketo tells us: "The supply chain has been great; we had enough people to assist with the challenging as well as time-consuming part. In a day we produced about 300 shields,” and adds “Definitely, physics has shaped my life."

Physics is often one of the most challenging courses in the first two years of engineering degrees. Was it worth doing physics to get this far?

Extraordinary people

"Part of good Engineering is having good technical problem-solving ability, one aspect of which is well-grounded fundamentals in the applications of physics principles. The project combines several applied physics principles. The flexibility of PVC (involves stress and strain behaviour), use of laser cutting (optics, energy, pressure, rapid cooling rate), controlled air circulation (diffusion and fluid motion) are some examples," says Rodney.

Paton said the nationwide response to the call had inspired him. "I think that many South Africans, as a nation of 'make-a-plan', are frustrated by not being able to help in a tangible way during the lockdown and this has channelled that energy somewhere. This has been as inspiring to be a part of as watching everyone trying to help Netcare with 3D printing for the face shields. These are extraordinary people in extraordinary times."

I. Gledhill


This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Head of the School of MIA

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., School of MIA, our reporter on the spot.

This post has first been published by the African Physics Newsletter. ©American Physical Society


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