Scott Rippetoe, the engineering team's lead mentor, said news of the cancellation came after months of preparation by his team members from across the district.
“They’ve been working 20-plus hours a week building a robot and preparing presentations and all types of work. We’re basically kind of like a small company,” Rippetoe said. “I think they were all pretty stunned. And some of the seniors—they’ve been on the team for four years. ... There’s a culture with the group; you have this kind of family feel. And suddenly, that’s taken away.”
Despite facing a lost season and high school experience, Rippetoe and his students found another way to stay active in their field this spring. After receiving a personal request for medical gear in mid-March, Rippetoe said he quickly moved to involve Texas Torque in the ongoing national effort to provide personal protective equipment to health care workers treating coronavirus patients by manufacturing face shields and other safety equipment.
“Even if the team didn’t get involved, I was going to be making these masks and everything,” Rippetoe said. “Once [the designs] got approved, I thought, ‘Okay, let’s see if the team wants to get involved with some 3D printing and stuff.’ Then, they all jumped in, too.”
Rippetoe said the process began by testing face shield designs with local medical staff to ensure the equipment was safe to use. After working through several iterations of their facial protective gear design, Rippetoe and several team members began production in an effort that has expanded to several other robotics organizations in the region.
Texas Torque is now working with a Greenville-based team with additional fabrication capacity due to their access to a water jet cutter that can quickly turn out one of the shield models.
“When we’re 3D printing, it takes about 2 hours for a mask to make. With water jet cutting and this new design, in 2 hours, we can probably turn out over 1,000. So it’s a big step up," Rippetoe said.
The group has already purchased around $10,000 worth of plastic sheeting, expected to create around 5,600 face shields using the new process, Rippetoe said. And in late March, the team purchased another large plastic roll for their Houston-area production that could be used to produce around 2,800 guards. Rippetoe said the robotics teams plan to distribute the guards throughout the Dallas area and throughout north and south Houston as their production continues.
In addition to facial gear, Rippetoe and Texas Torque are looking ahead to provide other equipment, such as protective housing for patients receiving ventilator treatment, which could be in limited supply as the coronavirus crisis continues.
“When people need to be put on one of the ventilator machines, ... they also have something called an intubation box, which is basically a kind of a plexiglass box that goes around the head of the person, and it allows the doctor to intubate the person,” Rippetoe said. “The plastic for making the intubation boxes ... That’s plastic that we can find locally. And it’s actually really easy to make these. It’s probably just as easy to make one of these boxes as it is to make 30 face shields.”
Rippetoe is also focusing his attention on building a device to aid in the production of surgical masks for health care personnel. He said the component allows for faster production of the straps for standard masks, which he has already begun to produce and share with his former student contacts and local medical staff.
“I have a lot of former students that are out there in the medical field," Rippetoe said. “I sent 10 up to a medical center in Wisconsin, I sent 10 to Austin a few days ago, and I sent 10 to St. Lucie in Florida. Those are all former students. ... We’re taking some over to MD Anderson. ... I’ve been taking mine to the Conroe Regional Medical Center.”
Dr. Larry Verfurth, chief medical officer at HCA Houston Healthcare Conroe, said in early April that Texas Torque had supplied the hospital with more than 50 face shields since the team began production. Verfurth said local school districts have also provided unused masks and respirators to the hospital for use by medical personnel as the coronavirus crisis continues, and that the hospital is open to receiving further donations to supplement the health system's supply.
"PPE supply levels remain a challenge as the crisis progresses. That said, we are continuously monitoring inventories, but feel we are adequately supplied to care for our patients. Additionally, HCA Houston Healthcare Conroe is connected to HCA Healthcare’s national resources that are also securing the necessary PPE and equipment across the company," Verfurth said in an email. "HCA Houston Healthcare Conroe truly appreciates the generous outpouring of support we are receiving from the community. We will gladly accept donations of manufactured, approved masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment from hardware stores, schools or other sources."
Rippetoe said he is using his personal 3D printer and two CISD devices that district administration approved for the project as well as additional devices loaned from other contacts, while several of his students are using their own printers at home.
“A lot of people, you get a little bit of cabin fever because you’re sitting at home. And maybe you’re wondering, ‘Can you do anything or not? Can you make a difference? Can you help?’” Rippetoe said. “There’s a reward just for being able to help these other people. ... Here they are going up against something that could literally take their lives, and they’re not as prepared as they should be. And so being able to contribute this—I’m just so glad that we’re able to do something.”
Texas Torque, or FIRST Robotics Competition Team 1477, is based out of College Park High School and includes team members from CISD high schools, the district's Academy of Science and Technology program and area home schools. For more information about Texas Torque’s work or to make a donation supporting the team’s supply purchases, visit www.texastorque.org/medical-ppe-for-health-providers.
For more information about donating medical supplies or food to HCA Houston Healthcare Conroe, call 936-539-7655.