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Nicholas Hoban, co-ordinator of John H. Daniels Digital Fabrication Lab, works on a laser cutter, building pieces for a face shield design being produced by a team in the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, at the University of Toronto, on April 8, 2020.

Nick Iwanyshyn/University of Toronto

The COVID-19 crisis has left some Canadian medical professionals short on personal protective equipment. But help is coming from an unlikely corner: architects and educators, who are using digital fabrication tools such as 3-D printers to build the necessary gear from scratch.

That is the purpose of the Toronto Emergency Device Accelerator, newly established by the University of Toronto. “My colleagues are trying to network the expertise we have at the university and their machines to address this need,” said Richard Sommer, dean of the school’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design.

They aren’t alone. Since the onset of the new coronavirus, design studios across the world have been using the digital fabrication devices common in their offices to produce pieces of protective equipment. In Toronto, this includes the company Partisans and a set of other architects – among them Quadrangle – who are collaborating with Michael Garron Hospital.

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The most prominent of these machines are 3-D printers, which create three-dimensional components, usually out of plastic. In architecture studios they’re used to create models of buildings or landscapes, or of building parts.

The technology can also be adapted to produce actual building components themselves; many prominent architects use digital production tools to make complex forms.

Matt Ratto, a professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of information studies who is co-ordinating the device-production effort, said the focus so far is on face shields. “We are doing this work now because the global supply chain has been disrupted,” he said, “and the materials we typically make things out of are in short supply.”

First, a headband is 3-D printed; then a face shield of thin translucent plastic is cut using a digitally controlled laser cutter. But the architecture school’s faculty is now working on a mask made out of just one folded sheet of a plastic called PETG. This allows the mask to be produced quickly and makes it easier to sterilize – and therefore reuse.

Matt Ratto, a professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of information, shows a working design for a face shield.

Nick Iwanyshyn/University of Toronto

Prof. Ratto studies the intersection of culture and digital production; along the way he has acquired expertise in using digital fabrication to produce prosthetics and orthotics. He is the chief science officer for Nia Technologies, a non-profit that helps medical clinics in the developing world access 3-D printing.

Through that experience, “I saw how capable [that technology] can be,” he said. “I’ve seen how useful that work can be in responding to emergency clinical situations. But I’ve also seen what happens if that work isn’t co-ordinated.” Quality control is crucial.

“We’re making sure that clinical knowledge is looped into the process,” Prof. Ratto said. So far the production at the university has been modest: roughly 300 face masks, according to Prof. Sommer.

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“I could press a button and be producing thousands, but I want to wait until we have clarity from hospitals that what we’re producing is what they need,” Prof. Ratto said.

Architects and educators are using digital fabrication tools to build personal protective equipment from scratch.

Nick Iwanyshyn/University of Toronto

He is co-ordinating with the University Health Network, which includes most of Toronto’s major hospitals and is associated with U of T, to assess their needs and test the quality of the item being produced at the school.

They are also exploring digital designs for PPE that can be shared and could be produced elsewhere.

He anticipates production will increase and continue for at least six weeks. “We need to stay responsive to what is a rapidly changing situation,” he added. “Industry is ramping up now to produce the equipment that’s needed, but there are always gaps – and that’s what we are ready to fill.”

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