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UW-Stevens Point employees use skills to address face shield shortage for local health workers

April 10, 2020

On a typical workday, Matt Biersack may be installing telephones, hanging office white boards, running communications cable or wiring data jacks through any of the 75 locations at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

However, since the coronavirus arrived in central Wisconsin, the focus of the communications engineer’s work has shifted. He now is one of several employees at UW-Stevens Point working to help the greater community respond to the pandemic.

As part of his job, Biersack uses the Information Technology Department’s three-dimensional (3D) printer to make plastic replacement parts for various needs around campus, such as reinforcement hinges and mounting plates.

In mid-March, when reports appeared that first responders and medical professionals could face a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), including safety shields, Biersack began searching for medically approved designs. He discovered he may be able to help by making plastic halo frames. These U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-approved frames hold protective face shields in place.

“I started printing some demos, wondering if the designs were strong enough and useful,” Biersack said.  

Pleased with the results, he found two other 3D printers on campus could be used to manufacture the frames – in the Theatre Prop Shop and Computer and New Media Technologies. Another from the library was already being used by CREATE Portage County on a similar effort.

With encouragement from his supervisor, Peter Zuge, and UW-Stevens Point leaders, Biersack has used his personal printer and the university printers to make face shield frames. Each frame costs $1 and takes about 95 minutes to print once the machines are warmed up. His goal was to make 200 by April 10.

“It feels good to be part of this initiative,” he said. “It’s great to see how the 3D printing community is coming together across the country and the world to help in this important cause.”

To produce a complete face shield, Biersack teamed up with other UW-Stevens Point employees. Facility Services staff was developing foam visor face shields, based on an approved COVID-19 shield design from UW-Madison.

“We were already working on making our own mask when Matt reached out to me to see what the shield for his design could be made of and what elastic could be used for the head bands,” said Travis Olsen, Buildings and Grounds superintendent.

Led by carpenter Todd Wipperfurth, Facility Services employees cut and assembled the face shield material – the same film used to make overhead-projector images – and head bands for Biersack’s frames. They also packaged the finished product.

Donning a Tyvek suit, surgical mask and latex gloves, Wipperfurth has been making foam visors since early April in a conference room converted into a makeshift, sterile workshop on campus.

“Todd is the perfect employee to be leading this effort,” said Olsen. “He has a keen eye for detail.”

Welder Phil Pawelski plays a key role in the production process too, fabricating the face shield templates from metal.

“The biggest challenge was sourcing the parts,” Olsen said. They tapped resources on and off campus and found a solution in clear sheeting from University Printing and Design. By April 10, Facilities Services will produce 200 face shields that are 12- by 9-inches.

The first 200 face shields were given to Copperleaf Senior Living Center in Stevens Point.

“It is great to see all of campus working together on helping our brothers and sisters in the medical field,” Olsen said.

“When I’m asked: ‘How do you switch from maintenance and construction to a small production facility making face shields?’ I tell them UW-Stevens Point Facility Services has built an amazing staff,” Olsen said. “Everyone is willing to do whatever the campus needs. When the pandemic arrived, they all asked, ‘What can we do to help our communities?'”