Coronavirus in Scotland: Inside the Edinburgh start-up factory making face shields for hero medics

The face shields are made on 3D printers at SummerhallThe face shields are made on 3D printers at Summerhall
The face shields are made on 3D printers at Summerhall | other
Summerhall production line aims to make 1,000-a-day

A POP-UP factory is supplying vital face shields to protect hero medics on the frontline of the Capital’s fight against the coronavirus.

The Summerhall-based production line - run by a band of engineers, researchers, academics and volunteers - are churning out more than 400-a-day.

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Medics have expressed fears over the protective gear supplied to them as the number of Covid-19 cases continues to rise.

Medics helped choose the preferred designMedics helped choose the preferred design
Medics helped choose the preferred design | other

“I never had any ambition to work in a face shield factory. I’m an academic who normally does mathematics and computer science,” said Edinburgh Shield Force member William Waites.

“We would be so happy if the normal structures that are meant to work on supplying equipment to the NHS started doing that at the speed that’s needed.

“We’d be glad, in a sense, to put ourselves out of a job - that would be great.”

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Medical professionals wrote to the Scottish government this week to express "grave concerns" about the protective equipment they have been given.

Signed by more than 100 medics, the letter claimed some front-line staff are risking their lives in the Covid-19 epidemic with no suitable aprons, masks and eyewear.

Based at the Edinburgh Hacklab - tech hub and hang-out in Summerhall - the group batted around ideas of how they could help once the crisis started to deepen.

Informatics researcher Dr Waites added: “We thought why don’t we make ventilators but they are complicated so we started casting around for what would be possible for us to do and face shields came up as a possibility.”

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An online fundraiser to support their efforts has now topped £10,500 on its way to a target of £15,000.

The group of engineers, academics and researchers have now turned their Summerhall lab into a factory expected to be able to produce 1,000 plastic face shields-a-day by the end of the week.

Current production stands at more than 400 masks-a-day with 20 volunteers on a rota looking after ten 3D printers on the production line.

The team are working on three types of face shield - 3D printed, laser cut and foam - to enable them to overcome any supply shortages in raw materials.

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Crucially, boffins have figured out a way of speeding up the normally slow 3D printing process - the preferred choice of medics.

Their biggest recipient is the ICU unit at the Royal Infirmary but shields are also going to medics in the Borders, Dundee and elsewhere.

“The reality is we’re making sure these things are in production for more than a week and giving them to people who need them,” said Dr Waites.

Nurses who are harried and a little bit desperate dealing with difficult things are super-grateful,” said Dr Waites.

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“They’re so happy when we turn up with four boxes, drop off two, go back for the other two and the first two boxes are already in use.”

Paramedics and NHS staff have even started turning up at Summerhall to pick up their own face shields as word spreads.

Dr Waites is now sharing the lab’s know-how with Edinburgh University deans in the hope their economic clout can double or treble production.

Engineers Martin Ling and Costa Talalaev were instrumental in figuring out how to make printers go faster.

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They consulted medics who chose the simplest design as the most comfortable, while bigger nozzles on printers made the five times faster.

But perhaps the most exciting development was making the printers semi-automatic - meaning they can be left running overnight with no one needed to watch over them.

The facility is documenting the process to be able to share it with the rest of the world in a bid to combat the pandemic globally.

Those behind the project say their goal is for any similar group to be able to copy the process to keep their medics safe.

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Money raised through the fundraiser will go towards materials and operational costs.

Any further funds raised beyond this will go towards the development and production of other medical supplies needed by healthcare providers.

A shopping list details how £2 is enough to make one face shield, while £400 gets enough 3D printing filament for 1,000 shields

The 3D printers cost £900 each while £1,000 gets enough plastic sheets for 10,000 shields.

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Organiser and mechanical engineer Marcin Morawski said: “It was really tiring and a lot of work but amazing.

“Whenever I’d be unable to get anything - parts or volunteers - I’d post on Basecamp and within a few hours someone would turn up with the thing I needed - it restores your faith in humanity.”

Anyone wishing to make a donation can do so at the Edinburgh Shield Force fundraising page.

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