May 04, 2020 | Matt Kucinski

A 3-D printer printing PPE for COVID-19 response.

In early May, engineering students at Calvin University are usually putting their finishing touches on their senior design projects—projects they’ve been working on for months. The projects run the gamut, everything from creating a low-cost braille printer that converts electronic text to braille to creating hurricane safe affordable homes for those transitioning out of homelessness in rural Florida.

Seniors Zac Ericson, Brett Ermer, Marcus Gelder, John Macy, and Peter Oh’s project for this year was designing and prototyping a Stirling engine generator to harness waste heat from wood stoves in rural areas and convert it to electrical power.

“We had nearly completed the initial prototype, but were unable to finish the fabrication and begin testing,” said Gelder.

The reason? The COVID-19 pandemic meant the metal shop they needed access to at Calvin was closed.

Pivoting the project

As we were reevaluating how to complete the project, I heard about a group in Alabama led by Destin Sandlin of Smarter Every Day that was printing face shields using a network of individual 3D printers,” said Gelder.

That led to an idea of the group printing PPE. They got permission from their faculty advisor, their senior design faculty, campus safety, and health services. Their next step, discovering who was doing this work well locally and asking how their group could help.

Finding a trusted partner

“Since one of our top priorities was to avoid bothering medical personnel or duplicating the work of others, we started looking for local groups who were working on supplying PPE,” said Macy. “We initially were going to work with a group in Ann Arbor, but then discovered 3DC19 through their Facebook page. They were extremely organized with an excellent website that made it very easy to know how we could help and start printing right away.”

Macy says that 3DC19 has taken care of most of the logistics, including setting up a disinfecting line for the PPE, coordinating orders and production, and packaging. “We simply deliver bagged parts to their warehouse in Holland and they take it from there.”

To date, the senior design team has printed more than 600 parts … and has not abandoned their original project either.

“We have learned as engineering students to be adaptable and to try and find solutions to problems or issues,” said Oh. “Thus, our team was confronted by a roadblock in respect to our senior design project and used our adaptability and problem solving skills to continue our project though it had become limited in its scope and to use our extra time and resources to help be part of the COVID-19 response.”

Living out the mission

The engineering projects are designed to give students an opportunity to take command of what they’ve been learning for the past three years and put it into practice. And while groups are tasked to use their engineering skills to come up with solutions, their learning is much deeper, it’s missional.

“As Calvin engineering students, we are thinking deeply about what is happening around us, so that we can act justly in doing what we can to help others,” said Oh. “In our case, this was helping with 3D printing for 3DC19. We are also living wholeheartedly by trying to actively contribute to 3DC19. With our time at Calvin as students we have all been taught in different ways to live a life of Christian service. In this way we are living out Calvin’s mission by serving others with our resources and time.”

“A verse that I was reminded of as our team added the task of helping 3DC19 was John 13:34-35,” said Ericson. “In this verse, Jesus says ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’”

“We are contributing in a small way to the community because our greatest calling is to love God and then to love one another as Christ loved us,” said Ermer.

An ongoing effort

The group continues to provide their resources and time to help 3DC19 in their organized response to the pandemic. They will continue to print mask straps as long as they can be used, and if different parts are needed the group says they will respond accordingly.

They encourage others to join the effort too.

“If anyone has idle 3D printers, 3DC19 (and similar groups around the country) are still looking for more help. They make the logistics easy and it’s a great way to pass the time during the quarantine,” said Ermer.

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