Kohelet Yeshiva High School in the Philadelphia area decided to open a Fab Lab, or digital fabrication laboratory, in a room left empty after its elementary school moved to a new adjacent building last summer. It never would have imagined that a few months later the facility would become instrumental in protecting hundreds of people from coronavirus.
“Fab Labs are based on the idea of giving students the opportunity to create with their hands and to use technology in the process,” the school’s director, Rabbi Gil Perl, told The Jerusalem Post.“We happened to have an art teacher who is a physical artist and creates with wood, pottery and so on. As part of the Fab Lab, we put in a number of 3D printers and a laser cutter, a machine capable of cutting materials in a very precise way.”
Kohelet Yeshiva is a K-12 Orthodox day school with about 260 students.
About two weeks ago, when the coronavirus crisis started to become very severe in the United States, one of the teachers discovered that other schools with a Fab Lab facility were working on building face shields in transparent plastic and suggested that Kohelet try to do the same.
With the cooperation of the art teacher and his wife, also an artist, the first prototype was built within two days, using a 3D printer and a laser cutter, Perl said.
The prototype was examined and approved by the infectious-disease prevention team at the local Lankenau Medical Center, just outside Philadelphia, and production began.
“However, the 3D printers are really slow, so by running the three of them at once, each would produce only four headbands in six hours, which would not begin to make a dent in the shortage that people are feeling,” Perl said.
For this reason, he and others decided to try producing another kind of face shield that would only require using the laser cutter. The second model was approved by the hospital, and they were soon able to create dozens of face shields per day.
The local community showed tremendous support for the initiative, Perl said.
One necessary material the school did not have was button-holed elastic, so he posted on Facebook asking community members if they could help.
“Purchasing it would require several days to get it delivered, and we wanted to start as soon as possible,” Perl said. “People started searching their house for this button-holed elastic and leaving bags of the stuff on their porch and on my porch for me, especially after they realized that pants and skirts of toddlers often contain it.”
The face shields were donated to health workers, parents of the students, within the community and then to local hospitals, he said.
The team working on the masks is currently made up of the rabbi and the two artists, who often spend all day in the lab. Alumni pick up supplies and make deliveries.
“We thought that the best way we could amplify what we were producing was to share our experience so that other schools with similar equipment could start doing the same thing,” Perl said. He described the process on his Facebook page and asked people to share it. The post was shared more than 1,000 times.
“I know that there are multiple schools around the country that have started to do the same, which is so heartwarming,” he said.
However, the publicity also created a flood of requests, Perl said.
“The requests started coming in from everywhere, New Jersey, New York,” he said. “I even received an email of a representative of two massive hospitals asking to purchase thousands of items.
“We are a small high school, and we are not even selling them. We donate them, and we raise money from our website to purchase the materials.”
The school is now partnering with local organizations and individuals to increase the production of face shields, Perl said.
“Many have 3D printers, but they don’t have the laser cutter to cut the actual faceplate, so we told them to start printing the bands, to send them to our schools, and that we will add the faceplate and the elastic and get them out,” he said. “We are working with all kinds of people, from the 14-year-old boy who has a printer that can produce one band in six hours to a Navy engineer who is trying to persuade his whole base to work with us. The entire public-school system here is printing bands for us, so our capacity has jumped significantly. We are hoping to produce at least 200 masks a day, if not more.”
The biggest challenge right now is finding the necessary materials, Perl said.
“I am assuming that most high schools in Israel do not have access to this equipment,” he said. “But I imagine that some businesses do, so we are encouraging everyone to get up and start helping using our expertise if there is a need.”