“It was a group of mates, we were literally on a Facebook chat and we said we should do something,” Mr Gordon said.
“Two days later, I was speaking with doctors in a hospital and they said they need face shields.”
Mr Gordon said the face shield project is called APPEAR because it can appear during a pandemic and disappear when it is no longer needed, ensuring Australia can be self-sufficient in any future crisis. The project could also be replicated within any university structure worldwide.
The face shields are based on an open source design by Sydney-based engineer Ben George, co-owner of Online Laser Cutting in Alexandria.
Mr George said he put the design out on Twitter not expecting anything to come of it and was delighted when Mr Gordon made contact a few hours later.
“We realised that he actually lived three blocks away from me so he ran down and stood on the other side of the hedge while I stood behind the front door and he waved his 3D-printed face shield and I waved my laser-cut one back and said, ‘Hang on a minute, let me tell you about laser cutting’,” Mr George said. “That started a really fun collaboration.”
Mr George said there had been attempts to make face shields using 3D printing but it is slower and less effective than laser cutting.
It took the APPEAR team half an hour to produce a prototype of the headband on a 3D printer and then they still needed to separately source and attach the transparent plate.
Meanwhile, it takes three minutes to produce the entire face shield on a laser cutter with the capacity to produce 1000 a day. The flat cut-outs can be easily shipped and stored in a drawer at a hospital and quickly assembled when needed.
Laser cutting also allows the use of stronger, less porous materials. This has environmental benefits because many face shields are single use but the APPEAR shields can be disinfected and reused in accordance with the cleaning protocols of several hospitals.
The APPEAR team also includes PhD candidates Dylan Ashton and Claire Bridges and graduates Samuel Gilbert and Saron Berhane.
RPA anaesthetists Michael Paleologos and Ryan Downey were clinical co-leads, testing each iteration of the face shield.
Professor Laurent Rivory said the university was the legal manufacturer of the devices and had underwritten the cost of the project, including materials, processes and regulatory consultant fees.
“We’re not usually in the business of manufacturing medical devices … so it’s a bit of an unusual role for the university,” Professor Rivory said.
“We’re certainly encouraging the students to try and think as though they were running a company because that’s part of the educational context here but there’s no risk of the project being bankrupt because the university has underwritten it.”
Professor Rivory said the university backed the project both to support “a very enterprising group of students” and contribute to Australia’s pandemic preparedness.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.