As the supply of medical protective gear dwindles around the rest of the U.S. due to the coronavirus pandemic, San Antonio’s innovators are uniting to prepare for the worst. 

A small team from prototyping facility CANopener Labs has joined forces with City Councilman Robert Treviño (D1) to organize San Antonians interested in 3D-printing face shields for health care workers and to build a makeshift emergency ventilator system. 

The team of eight has been working 18 to 20 hours per day since early last week.

A couple of weeks ago, CANopener Labs switched from its full-time normal operations to focusing on a grassroots effort to create more personal protective equipment for San Antonio’s nurses, doctors, and specialists, said CANopener Labs co-founder Dale Bracey. San Antonio’s medical professionals were unable to accept home-sewn masks that didn’t meet CDC standards and were instead asking for face shields, said Drue Placette, also a co-founder of CANopener Labs.

The face shields consist of a plastic headband that holds a clear piece of plastic over the wearer’s face, forehead, and neck to prevent splashes or droplets from getting on the user. 

Placette said the team began working on 3D-printed face shields after their friend Thuy Dinh asked for help with her own personal initiative to make more shields.

Realizing from speaking with her that hundreds of San Antonians were interested in 3D-printing the face shields, and with many people such as Hemisfair Program Coordinator Felicia Powell already printing and donating shields from their own home, Placette said they decided to help organize efforts.

“We saw that … no one was collaborating,” Placette said. “We realized it’s going to be confusing for the health care workers if they’re getting 60 different masks from 60 different people, and they’re already overwhelmed as it is, so we said, ‘Let’s do this in a way that’s structured.’” 

Co-founder Drue Placette says the team at CANopener Labs began working on 3D-printed face shields after a friend asked for help. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Bracey added that their team wanted to get all the city’s makers on the same page using the same materials, design, disinfection process, and delivery point to help streamline the manufacturing of the shields. The lab is printing a Prusa3D face shield model, an open-source design available to all makers online

To organize everyone, the team created a Slack channel and several Google Sheets as well as a Facebook fundraiser, Bracey said. San Antonio’s innovators came together quickly after that, offering to donate their 3D printers, and plastic in addition to the 20 3D printers CANopener Labs was already running, he added.

Right now people at the North San Antonio space are producing about 150 face shields per day, but Placette hopes to see that number increase to 500 per day in the next couple of weeks.

CANopener Labs is working in coordination with the City to get the shields delivered to a central point for distribution, he said. 

The lab and team also are working on a ventilator system proposed by Treviño. After reading a lot of news about other cities being low on proper ventilators, Treviño said he wanted to make sure San Antonio didn’t run into the same issue as coronavirus case numbers continue to grow locally.

“We’ve been trying to do everything we can to help on City Council,” Treviño said. “As you know, I asked SAWS and CPS not to disconnect folks during this event.”

After speaking with many friends and constituents about a worldwide concern for the shortage of ventilators, Treviño said he began to wonder what he could do to help. 

Dr. Erika Gonzalez, a San Antonio allergist and immunologist, explained to Treviño why ventilators are so critical in the fight against COVID-19. Ventilators pump the correct amount of air into patients’ lungs at the correct tempo to help them breathe as the virus attacks the upper airways and lungs, Treviño said.

Another friend sent Treviño a link about a group of MIT students who had invented a cheap ventilator system 10 years ago that could be potentially deployed to developing nations in the case of a pandemic. While a modern ventilator can cost between $5,000 and $50,000, this makeshift system cost only $100 or so to build. 

“My friend asked me, ‘Why don’t you look into something like this?’” Treviño said. 

With an architectural background, Treviño has helped design improvements to the control tower at Stinson Municipal Airport and a new all-electric river barge design, among other local projects. Treviño said he felt it was time to put his design skills to work again. 

Monday evening he called Steven Quintanilla, co-founder and fleet admiral of shared workspace office SpaceCadet, to ask for his aid in re-creating a similar makeshift ventilator design.

On Wednesday, Treviño, Quintanilla, Placette, and Bracey met at CANopener Labs, along with a couple of other makers, to begin designing a prototype. Using “leftover materials and scraps off the floor,” the team created two models the team has since been working to improve, Treviño said.

“We’re using every bit of local talent and brain power we can to piece this together,” Treviño said.

Most of the team sleeps in the CANopener facility instead of going home to their families, Gonzalez said, staying quarantined together. Team members usually work in a group of three and wear face masks.

The prototype design uses a self-inflating bag – commonly called an Ambu bag, manual resuscitator, or bag-valve-mouth system – to force air into a patient’s lungs. These bags, hand-squeezed by paramedics to ventilate a patient, are typical in every ambulance and hospital, Treviño said, making them easy to come by. 

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The small machine the CANopener Labs team is designing squeezes the bag at a specific speed and depth to control the volume of air and pace of breaths, which is critical, Placette said. Medical professionals will be able to adjust the volume and pace to make it work for both adults and children. 

Keeping the machine simpler than those of other innovators around the country means it likely will be ready to deploy if needed in just weeks rather than months, Placette said. 

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The team is currently working on its fourth iteration of the design and hopes to have models available to send out in the next two weeks, Treviño said.  

“We have a huge responsibility to figure this out to make sure we have a solution, as this city is going to need it,” Treviño said. “The [peak in San Antonio] is expected to be in 21 days from now, so we hope to be ready.”

(left) Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and Steven Quintanilla stand in the workshop at CANopener Labs. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Treviño said hurdles still need to be crossed, including U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval and a plan to make the product available in emergency situations. Right now the team is focused on getting the best prototype it can, he said.

At completion, Treviño said he’d like to make the device easily available to hospitals and portable enough for ambulances. 

“We’re going to do what we have to do,” he said. 

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett reports on business and technology for the Rivard Report.