COVID-19 response Serving our community
Outfitting the front line
Loyola University Chicago faculty are working nimbly—and outside of their expertise—to answer the global call for personal protective equipment
Did Neil Klingensmith expect to spend his spring in the shield-making business? Not a chance. An assistant professor in Loyola University Chicago’s Department of Computer Science, Klingensmith typically researches the Internet of Things, “like the Nest thermostat and these gizmos we have all over the place.” Is he handy? A little bit, sure. But he’s a software guy at heart, a coder at a monitor. Manufacturing is not his deal.
Like a lot of Chicagoans sheltering-in-place, though, Klingensmith found himself with extra time on his hands. “You’re sitting at home,” he says, “and you have to find something to do, right?” In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’d read about medical “hackathons,” in which do-it-yourselfers were finding novel ways to construct alternative pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers. Eventually, he scrolled over an article on the website of his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, highlighting a pair of engineers who were partnering with area companies to produce medical face shields, a critical piece of PPE for those treating coronavirus patients. The group helpfully published their design specs as open source, allowing others to download and start building their own impromptu gear. Klingensmith had access to Loyola’s computer science labs, which house comparable equipment. Plus his wife works in a North Side medical clinic, giving him an extra itch to pitch in. And so began Klingensmith’s quixotic PPE experiment.
To start, he needed to hunt down supplies. Finding flat plastic sheets and foam for brow guards wasn’t too tricky. Elastic proved more elusive. The world is rushing to refill its PPE stockpiles, and elastic has dried up. A series of cold-calls led him to Vogue Fabrics, an Evanston-based wholesaler and (as of March) medical interloper. “A lady in the warehouse said they’d been getting orders from all over the country. Ford Motor Company even called them up!” Klingensmith says. “I sense from their name that they are not in the business of supplying stuff for seatbelts, you know?”
Materials in hand, he constructed a couple of prototypes using scissors and an X-Acto knife. Then he jumped back online, in an effort to flag companies that could take his clear plastic rolls and, in bulk, mold them into the precise shape. The trick was to locate a plant with a plastics converter, a tool about which Klingensmith knew nothing. Chicago Plastic Systems, in nearby Crystal Lake, Illinois, had both the proper machine and the capacity. Colleagues at Loyola, meanwhile, offered to help him navigate the knotty issues of liability and distribution.
By the end of April, Loyola University Medical Center is set to receive 2,250 face shields, courtesy of Klingensmith. The first batch already shipped, and production will ramp up this week. In this chaotic time, when medical supply chains are choked, lives could very well be saved because of Klingensmith’s hustling. The Internet of Things can sit on the back-burner for the time-being.