Volunteers step up—with needle, thread, and 3D printers—to help flatten the curve

University employees tap into technology and their creative skills to give back during the pandemic.
Volunteers step up—with needle, thread, and 3D printers—to help flatten the curve
Lorena Lopez sews handmade cotton masks at her kitchen table. 

With one goal in mind—help as many people as possible—Lorena Lopez set out on a mission when she found herself with extra time at home during the pandemic. A graduate student pursuing an MFA in the School of Communication’s Interactive Media Program, Lopez works full-time as a communications specialist, managing the employee-focused social media accounts—@LifeattheU—and producing content for University employees with her team at University Communications.

A creative at heart, Lopez’s background in fine arts has allowed her to spend more than a decade diving into a number of artistic endeavors using a variety of mediums—including sewing, film photography, and painting—for creative expression. “In my graduate program, I've been able to integrate various forms of technology into my craft,” she said, noting that a project she created with the Lowe Art museum that involved virtual reality and 3D printing as one of her most memorable.

Her love of video games and showmanship led her to cosplay and sewing character-inspired costumes, a hobby that has persisted. “I spent the first day of the quarantine making mock-ups for costumes, then immediately shifted my focus and decided to put my skills to good use,” said Lopez. “Our current circumstances made me want to jump into action.”

With the help of her mom and grandmother, who form part of the assembly line operation, Lopez has sewn more than 800 masks over the course of three weeks. Balancing a full work day and taking classes online, she spends a few hours at the end of each day making 30 to 60 cotton masks from her home office. “Thousands of people are putting their lives on the line, and this is something I can do to help them,” said Lopez.

Making connections

Lopez is not alone in this effort. In fact, she has connected with friends and other skilled volunteers through communities like Sew the Curve Flat—an online group with almost 3,500 members on Facebook that seeks to match seamstresses across the country with local facilities in need of supplemental personal protective equipment, or PPE. Depending on the institution, health care teams will request and accept homemade cloth masks among a number of other supplies they are lacking.

The grassroots, DIY approach continues spilling into the maker-community as 3D printers have been tapped as mini makeshift factories to produce plastic headbands for face shields, another highly-sought-after PPE in short supply, and “ear savers”—an accessory designed to alleviate a user’s ears from damage caused by constantly wearing face masks with elastic loops. Similar to the sewing community, makers with access to printers across the country have connected through online communities—including the Print the Curve Flat Facebook group—to share their files, updates, and tips—including printer nozzle settings.

A few weeks ago, Lopez’s professor, Zevensuy Rodriguez, a lecturer in the School of Communication’s Interactive Media Program, learned about her volunteer work and reached out to join forces. With two 3D printers at home, he is able to produce the plastic headbands, which hold the face shield in place. “Before I put on the coffee every morning, I turn on the machine and start printing face shields,” he explained.

Rodriguez runs his two Ultimaker 3D printers throughout the day, checking on the final product before starting the next one, which take about 30 minutes each to complete. On an average day, he can produce 20 to 30 objects, between the two machines, using a model that has been approved by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and available through the NIH 3D Print Exchange. The site provides an open, comprehensive, and interactive space for finding and sharing vetted biomedical 3D print files, modeling tutorials, and educational material, including items in demand because of COVID-19.


Social impact at the core

Rodriguez, who currently teaches three classes with almost 80 students total, has been able to print more than 250 face shield bands, which have been sent to frontline workers from Puerto Rico to Iowa. “People are asking us for this material, and we’re supplying that need,” he said. “Lorena has put together this huge effort. I'm the silent partner, and I'm here to help her as much as possible. Right now, that means cranking out as many shields as possible.” It has  been a community effort as makers continue refining the product through each iteration based on user feedback.

“Our department in the School of Communication has a strong focus on social impact and how—whether through games and playful experiences—traditional web, data visualization, film, and documentaries can incorporate tenants of social impact,” said Rodriguez. Part of his teaching approach involves thinking about how to help others using creative endeavors. He notes that 3D printing in the medical profession is not new—seen by the use of prosthetics, bioprinting human tissue, and dental applications—but he wonders if this growing grassroots movement during the global pandemic to supply the PPE demand will inspire health care to rethink the validity and role of off-the-shelf technology for use in-house.

A labor of love

For Lopez and Rodriguez, their passion projects are a way they can each support those on the front lines. Lopez has hosted a few sewing how-to workshops on Zoom and Twitch, and continues sharing her story in the hopes that others will learn and get involved—regardless of their ability to sew. Since starting, she has raised $2,000 in donations, which has allowed her to cover the cost of purchasing new materials to create and ship masks and shields.

The next phase is getting people on board to sew and print, explained Lopez, adding that she has the materials to get them started. Local volunteers—including her own friends—have reached out to send her however many homemade masks they can produce, which she bundles and ships off to fulfill requests from across the country. Similarly, she has taken on coordinating and matching 3D printers with facilities requesting anywhere from 20 to 500 shields and ear savers for their teams. “Using a directory that I've organized, I match available makers with a site based on their geographic location or production availability,” she explained. Working with her growing network, she and the team have been able to supply hundreds of much-needed PPE to health care workers.

Lopez has received photos of grateful health care workers donning homemade masks and shields on the job. “A lot of what's been driving and keeping me inspired to continue working is the fact that everyone is so appreciative and thankful for these masks,” said Lopez. “Whenever my back starts hurting, I think about those health care workers who are pushing through. If they’re doing their jobs for more than 12 hours at a time, I can do this.”

Whether you have a sewing machine and years of experience or are just getting started with bedsheets and a needle and thread, there are ways to get involved. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommending cloth masks be worn to help slow the spread of COVID-19, these small pieces of fabric are more valuable than ever. Find CDC mask guidelines and connect with Lopez at llopez@miami.edu.

Learn how you can support the University’s COVID-19 response. 

Are you donating your time and talents to support frontline workers, or know someone who is? We want to hear your story. Send a note to lifeattheu@miami.edu.