Entrepreneur and academics rise to face guard challenge


Innovative academics and an award-winning entrepreneur in Hull are joining the national effort to produce desperately needed face guards for front line workers.

Support for the NHS in dealing with the thousands of coronavirus cases is the single biggest challenge beyond stopping the spread – and those caring for Covid-19 victims are most at risk.

A team of engineers and technicians are working at the Faculty of Science and Engineering and Aura Innovation Centre to increase supplies of the personal protective equipment, while at C4DI, Alex Youden wants to unleash his NFire Labs business. Both are using 3D printing technology.

The university aims to produce more than 400 face guards in a pilot project.

Senior lecturer Nathan Brown, project lead, said: “We are using our research, expertise and resources to help with the nation’s effort to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The production of these face guards is just one of the ways we can help boost supplies of essential equipment. Initially, we will respond to the requests from the NHS and a Grimsby hospice and hope to be able to print between 100 to 200 a day. Once we have fulfilled these requests we hope that we will be able to support other healthcare organisations in our region.

The facilities at University of Hull, now being used to manufacture face guards.
(Image: University of Hull)

“Over the past week, a small team has been able to develop a design that is optimised for our 3D printers.”

The design will also be shared with a consortium of organisations in Manchester.

“We are in the process of adapting the Faculty of Science and Engineering’s FabLab facilities – with more than 20 3D printers, normally used by our engineering students to digitally manufacture models and prototypes. The lab will become an important resource to provide a quick response in these difficult times,” Mr Brown said.

It follows the university’s Biomedical Sciences team delivering sample processing technology to Castle Hill Hospital to help identify the virus, while student nurses and medics prepare to join the front line of the NHS. It is also about to start online training to former NHS healthcare professionals who will be re-joining the workforce at the peak of the pandemic.

Dr Ellis Marshall, technical manager at Aura Innovation Centre, with one of the 3D-printed face guards being produced by University of Hull.
Dr Ellis Marshall, technical manager at Aura Innovation Centre, with one of the 3D-printed face guards being produced by University of Hull.
(Image: University of Hull)

Dr Ellis Marshall, technical manager at the Aura Innovation Centre, said: “The 3D printing process is relatively simple. In theory, if people have a 3D printer available they can join the national efforts of the maker community across the UK. It is possible for them to set their printer up to print the design while they go about their daily lives.”

One businessman looking to do that and more is Mr Youden, former Young Engineer of Great Britain and a regional award winner.

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He has brought forward a two-in-one visor and breathing filter now being tested by several front line NHS staff.

It uses common materials and components that are held by hospitals – anaesthesia masks, blood sample straps and Filta-Guard breathing filters.

The 3D printed parts can be sterilised and reused.

Alex Youden's efforts so far - but materials and money are needed to step up further.
Alex Youden’s efforts so far – but materials and money are needed to step up further.

“When the virus began there was a massive surge in demand that normal manufacturers and suppliers couldn’t keep up with,” he said.

“3D printers are an incredibly powerful tool and we just thought we needed to have a crack at this.  We have 30 to 40 printers, we have the capacity to go forward.”

His stumbling block is materials, and capital to take it forward at pace – so he has launched a crowdfunder, effectively enabling people to sponsor the vital PPE.

Entrepreneur Alex Youden, founder of NFire Labs in Hull, with the two-in-one visor and breathing filter he is keen to get as many as possible to front line NHS workers.
Entrepreneur Alex Youden, founder of NFire Labs in Hull, with the breathing filter element of his two in one design. He is keen to get as many as possible to front line NHS workers.
(Image: NFire Labs)

“The majority of the PPE needs a clear visor, and while we have some in stock it is not enough and we will very soon run out,” he said, estimating he can make 50. “I started calling suppliers and found everyone has been buying material, and now there is a lead time of four to six weeks. If there are companies around that have this material to hand, then I can put it to use. It is clear, semi-rigid plastic, be it PETG, acetate, thin acrylic, thin polycarbonate or just about any other thin but strong clear plastic sheeting.”

On the employment front, having furloughed staff and unsure if they can return to volunteer, he said; “I can make 50 or 60 but extra hands could make this 100 a day, maybe more, once we get the materials. As soon as we have them we are good to go.”

He is also working with Hull and East Yorkshire NHS Trust, while looking to the South Bank and Leeds also.

If you can help him source materials, email general@nfirelabs.com or call 01482 298635.

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