Illinois ECE Transforms Building for Face Shield Production During Shutdown


Ryann Monahan, Illinois ECE

URBANA, Ill. -- While campus was empty and eerily quiet during the mandatory COVID-19 shelter-in-place, the buzz of machines echoed in the chambers of the Machine Shop inside the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering building. 

 Laboratory Mechanics Skee Aldrich and Jordan Spezia transformed the Illinois ECE building into a face shield production site in an effort to make sure enough plastic shields were available to people who needed them. 

 The Illinois ECE Machine Shop, typically used to make anything Illinois ECE students or faculty cannot buy, was used to cut the large plastic sheets that start the face shield formation. The students’ Open Lab was used to laser cut the face shield plastic to exact specifications.

Their efforts came during the COVID-19 lockdown when only the most essential workers reported to their job sites. They weren’t required to be there, but for them, there was no other option.  

“It feels pretty good to do something proactive towards taking care of the issue and protecting people, the face shields went to local hospital workers. It is nice to be able to help those workers out, try to keep them safer, and get them PPE when they may not have been able to source it otherwise,” Aldrich said. 

Casey J Smith
Casey J Smith

Illinois ECE joined efforts to mobilize campus makerspaces to help produce facemasks and shields in March 2020. Illinois ECE’s Assistant Director of Instructional Support  worked with Lisa Anne Bievenue and members of the Health Maker Lab network to see how they could make an impact with Illinois ECE resources. 

The Illinois ECE Open Lab, a lab filled with low and high-tech resources for student engineering projects, houses the LASER cutter which was the primary tool the team used. In addition, the Machine Shop has been used to cut LASER blanks from the rolled plastic.

“I offered the Open Lab LASER cutter as a potential resource and confirmed Machine Shop personnel would be willing to volunteer to operate the machine. Skee Aldrich has contributed significantly to this effort along with Jordan Spezia and Gregg Bennett,” Smith said.

The Illinois ECE Machine Shop blanked raw material from its rolled form and prepared AutoCAD drawings for cutting, as well as operating the LASER to cut the face shields. 

“The ability to blank the rolled material has been important because outside vendors were unable to perform this operation for the group and our machine shop was able to process the roll in-house and reduce costs to the PPE team,” Smith explained.

Additional Illinois ECE faculty and staff were also instrumental in making these efforts possible. Dane Sievers, Engineering Teaching Lab Coordinator, lent his research expertise with the LASER cutter to help set up cutting jobs since he was in the building supporting other COVID related activities already. Sievers’ contributions proved to be extremely helpful in reducing the need for multiple daily contacts.

The entire Illinois ECE team worked with an abundance of caution during these efforts. Facilities Operations leadership Greg Nelson and Clint Harper coordinated safe pickup and delivery of raw materials and finished face shields by Facilities and Services from the dock in coordination with the machine shop. 

Catherine Somers
Catherine Somers

For many in Illinois ECE, transforming the building and tackling these new challenges were an opportunity to contribute to PPE efforts. For others, like Assistant Head for Illinois ECE Administration Catherine Somers, it was deeply personal. 

“After learning my colleague in the Coordinated Science Laboratory, Peggy Wells, had a niece working on the COVID-19 Floor at Carle Hospital (Urbana, Illinois).  I had to make sure she had proper PPE and wanted Illinois ECE to help make it happen.  I reached out and she confirmed her niece was wearing one of these face shields.  That touched my heart that a long-term UI support person could be so closely impacted by the good (albeit unexpected) work of her own unit,” Somers explained.  

Transformative efforts at Illinois ECE continue as the building gets ready to safely welcome students for in-person classes for Fall 2020. The building has once again been repurposed and converted into multiple socially-distanced learning spaces operating under an abundance of caution and within the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines with help thanks to many members of the same team that lead face shield production in Illinois ECE during spring 2020.