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NCC's Fab Lab Partners with "Masks for the Lehigh Valley"

Can't stop a maker!

When news that health care workers were forced into wearing scarves and bandanas due to a shortage of masks, Lehigh Valley volunteers mobilized to help make these critical supplies. A key part in this effort is Northampton Community College's very own Fab Lab!

Normally, the Fab Lab operates as an open access space to state-of-the-art technologies ranging from a full metal and woodshop, spray booth, 3D printers, laser cutters, a Sound Lab, guitar-making and repair studio, cold casting and more. Community members are invited to come in and prototype new product ideas, improve on existing ones or crafting for fun, all with the tools and intellectual resources needed to dream, design, and create. Classes are also offered to teach new skills and build on existing ones.

During the Covid-19 health crisis, it is a production shop for masks designed to be used overtop of healthcare workers' N95 makes. This helps preserve their masks, and allows them to be distributed in more resourceful ways.

"Fab Lab Instructors Sean Kernan and Monica Beaky were part of the initial start up of the Facebook group Masks for the Lehigh Valley," says Sean Brandle, interim director of the Fab Lab. "Both were working with Ruth Dennison and fellow Fab Lab Instructor Joan Zachary. As soon as we heard about the college closing, Sean mentioned the idea as to how the Fab Lab can contribute during this challenging time. In some way, the Fab Lab was determined to help out whether it was sewing masks, 3D Printing or printing signs for hospitals."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines that allows for homemade masks when industry ones are not available.  With the closure of many of Lehigh Valley schools, including NCC, this allowed NCC's Fab Lab to mobilize for the cause, bringing in just three people to work in the empty Lab.

"We have a three person production line set up in the lab. Taking all precautions, using social distancing, gloves, masks, sanitizers and disinfecting wipes. Safety is our number one, since we are sending kits out into the community," Brandle shares.

The masks are produced as follows:

PREPARING THE FABRIC

Instructor Monica Beaky prepares the fabric to lay flat in the laser cutter.

LASER CUTTING

Instructor Sean Kernan precisely laser cuts the pattern.

PACKAGING THE KITS

The kits are then packaged and delivered to members of the group for sewing.

FINAL PRODUCT

The final product is then delivered to the local hospitals.

In 6.5 hours, the Fab Lab volunteers were able to prepare 640 kits!

"We will continue to help our community in any way possible," Brandle says. "As long as there is a need, the Fab Lab will be here to contribute, continuing to improve our processes and products as we go. We are working with St. Luke's and Lehigh Valley Health Network currently. We are looking into 3D printing masks, but this needs to be cautiously evaluated as any files used need to be medically approved for use."

While this situation is unchartered territory for all, the Fab Lab team jumped at the chance to access the technology and equipment at their disposal to help hospital workers and their community. This health crisis has also sparked an idea for when things begin to normalize.

"We'll definitely take a look at 3D printing and laser technology in the medical field. I believe this is something that needs to happen in order to learn from this outbreak," Brandle says. "I would love to create a program or classes to add to existing programs, on 3D modeling and printing with prosthetics, medical masks, valves, etc. We will know what the needs are for the hospitals after this pandemic, and that's what we should focus on."