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How a Chicago architecture firm is 3D printing face shields to help local hospitals

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The team at bKL Architecture retooled its model shop to produce protective gear for frontline healthcare workers

A row of 3D printers on a long table viewed through the windows of an office buildings.
While most of the architects work from home, a small team of volunteers manufacture and assemble personal protective equipment out of bKL’s Lakeshore East office.

The majority of the 80 employees at Chicago’s bKL Architecture have been working from home since Gov. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order went into effect. Still, a handful of dedicated designers are at the firm’s Lakeshore East office, working into the night to produce protective face shields for healthcare professionals on the front line of the fight against the novel coronavirus.

While many of the country’s large factories have retooled to make personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, gowns, and respirators, bKL historically hasn’t manufactured much beyond renderings and blueprints for projects like Wolf Point West, Cirrus, and Vista Tower.

“This started when I saw an article in the New York Times about hospitals being underprepared with protective gear and how fabricators and designers were meeting that challenge,” explains Tom Kerwin, bKL’s founding principal. “I emailed Andrew Tyson, who runs our model shop, and asked him to look into how we could use our resources to help Chicago’s medical community.”

Tyson, whose background is in product design, fabrication, and woodworking, reached out to colleagues at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—where he also teaches a CNC machining class. “We were able to find an open-source file for a face shield head bracket that could be produced by the 3D printers at the office,” he tells Curbed Chicago.

Two days later, Kerwin and Tyson assembled their first prototype shield. To produce as much protective gear as possible, the firm increased its number of printers from four to 10 and has two more on the way, thanks to a successful GoFundMe campaign. The company plans to eventually donate its extra devices to local educational institutions such as Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Public Libraries.

A hand holds a curved plastic face shield connected to a plastic head bracket and strap.
The shields are made of three components: the 3D-printed head bracket, a transparent face guard, and an elastic head strap.

The 3D-printed brackets form the backbone for the completed face shields, which are assembled in-house by volunteers. Working in shifts, the small teams adhere to CDC guidelines by wearing face coverings and staying at least six feet apart. The team members are restricted to spouses, life partners, or roommates to minimize health risks from unnecessary social interactions.

The printed brackets connect to the see-through shields—repurposed overhead transparency sheets that can be found at any office supply store—using a standard three-hole punch. The head straps are chains fashioned out of store-bought hair-ties. Kerwin says he sampled 12 different types of ties to figure out which variety would work the best.

When it came to getting the protective gear into the hands of the healthcare professionals that need it the most, the staff at bKL started by reaching out to personal contacts. They delivered the first batch of shields to the University of Chicago Medical Center last week and immediately received positive feedback.

As the firm increased its production from roughly 50 to 120 shields a day, it partnered with #GetMePPE Chicago—an organization started by local third-year medical students that had to put their residencies on hold as Chicago came to grips with the virus. The group distributes protective equipment to a network of 27 local healthcare facilities, with a primary focus on underserved and “safety net” hospitals that serve patients regardless of their ability to pay.

“Most of the big hospitals have adequate PPE right now,” explains Kerwin. “We’re seeing that the greatest need is in smaller neighborhood hospitals, where the staff is often having to reuse N95 masks. The stories we are hearing about workers lacking protection are heartbreaking, but it’s been heartwarming to be able to help where we can.”

Kerwin says he and his team sent prototype shields along with the digital printer file and assembly instructions to clients in Toronto as well as other design professionals around the country. “If anyone wants to contribute, we will send them the file,” he says. Individuals and organizations can email faceshields@bklarch.com for more information.

The volunteer effort at bKL is part of a growing trend among architecture and design practices to manufacture desperately needed PPE in their respective regions. In Los Angeles, hundreds of volunteers working in the design and fabrication field recently pooled their resources to produce 1,500 face masks and shields in less than a week. A number of larger architecture firms including Bjarke Ingels Group, Kohn Pedersen Fox, Grimshaw, and Handel Architects are also getting involved in the PPE manufacturing effort, according to Architecture Record.

Tyson says bKL’s crowdfunding campaign provided them with the raw materials needed to manufacture shields 24/7 through the end of April—though he predicts the need for PPE is likely to extend beyond that date.

“As a model-maker, I really had nothing to do after our office shut down a few weeks ago,” Tyson tells Curbed. “It’s become my full-time job mass producing these shields. We’re prepared to keep working until hospitals have what they need or the pandemic goes away.”

Two men stand in front of a table of 3D printers in front a wall-mounted model of a city.
Kerwin (left) and Tyson (right) pose in front of a row of 3D printers that were previously used to make models—like the one mounted on the rear wall.
bKL Architecture