WILTON — Wilton Library’s Innovation Station — most notably the home for projects involving robotics, electronic embroidery and its Cricut die cutter — has moved into the field of healthcare technology as its 3D printer churns out plastic face shields.

A critical component of a medical center’s supply of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) the face shields are being donated to Norwalk Hospital/Nuvance Health.

It’s a time-consuming project that has been undertaken by Michael Franco, husband of Mary Anne Mendola Franco, the library’s assistant director of technology. He could make a lot more progress, he said, if he had access to a second printer to augment the library’s machine.

According to the library’s executive director, Elaine Tai-Lauria, the project stemmed from a personal concern in that her sister is a physician.

“I became very nervous for her,” Tai-Lauria said. Then she read how 3D printers in libraries might be used to make face shields for hospital staff. Thomas Kozark, a member of the library’s technology team and its “3D expert,” confirmed Wilton’s machine could do so.

However, with Kozark’s hands full redesigning programs and services to virtual platforms for the community while the library is closed, it appeared the project would be a non-starter until Franco stepped forward, with Kozark advising him.

The project began on April 16 when the Francos brought the machine to their home, set it up in a spare room and began working on a prototype. Franco downloaded a program for making the shields to a laptop computer that sends the information to the printer. He has been consulting with Kozak on adjustments to make the process go more smoothly.

“Seeing the completion of the first face shield during a Zoom session was very exciting,” Tai-Lauria said.

With a final design in hand, Tai-Lauria reached out to Dr. Saras Nair, former chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Norwalk Hospital and a trustee of the Wilton Library Association. She confirmed the hospital still needed shields and brought a sample to the hospital’s PPE expert for approval.

“He said it’s good. Go,” Franco said. “They liked them.” Tai-Lauria said she was overjoyed at the news.

“I was actually speechless when I heard they needed 500 face shields, however my husband [Phil Lauria] immediately said ‘We’ll fund it; start printing!’” Nair and her husband, Dr. Kesav Nair, also joined in funding the project’s expenses so the library would not have to bear them.

A slow process

What the printer is turning out are two pieces of a three-piece design: a headpiece and a chin piece made from the filament loaded into the machine. They hold a piece of 10-mil acetate, a little heavier than the kind used for overhead transparencies.

The headpiece has two sections, one band that goes against the forehead and one band that holds the acetate away from the face. A chin piece stabilizes it.

Franco uses a three-hole punch to position tiny pegs that hold the acetate to the headpiece. The chin piece has a slot for the acetate to fit into. A nine-and-a-half-inch piece of elastic holds the shield in place on the wearer’s head.

“There are others out there that are much more flimsy, with no chin piece,” Franco said. “I don’t believe those are near as good as the ones I’m making. These are more sturdy and more comfortable for a person to wear.”

This is not a speedy process. It takes two and a-half to three hours to create one headpiece and 40 minutes for the chin piece. A 1-kilogram roll of filament makes 21 headsets and 31 chin pieces.

“This [printer] is going all day,” said Franco, who gets up in the middle of the night to start a new piece as soon as one is done.

The printer is showing signs of strain and on Thursday, Franco was working on building a cardboard shield, as suggested by Kozak, to stabilize it.

The library delivered the first 40 shields on Tuesday, April 28. At the rate the printer is working, Franco can turn out five a day.

“It would help if we could finagle another printer,” he said. The library owns a Lulzbot TAZ 6, and various models range in price from $3,000 to $5,000. Anyone wishing to help purchase a new 3D printer for the library may do so by going to www.wiltonlibrary.org and clicking Donate Now.

“The best thing about this is it gives you a sense of doing something worthwhile to help people out,” Franco said. Instead of watching news about the COVID-19 pandemic on TV, “you’re doing something and delivering to the hospital items that mean something to them.”

Franco, whose first career was in finance, retired just last November from his job as technology director for Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County.

“This feels like an extension of that,” he said with a laugh.

“We are so proud of what this library has accomplished in continuing to respond to the intellectual needs of the community,” Tai-Lauria said. “While working from home, library staff have been communicating regularly with patrons, providing new digital resources, producing virtual story times, literary programs and business seminars, as well as providing individual information assistance, and now we can add that we are helping to protect our vital medical personnel.

“It’s a certainty that we will need a new 3D printer for Singularity Technology, our state champion robotics team, when we finally are able to open our doors,” Tai-Lauria said. “But most important, we look forward to seeing our patrons again.”