United Way awards Fab Lab $5,000 to address shortage of medical supplies

As our community continues to grapple with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, organizations like United Way’s Community Impact funded agency Fab Lab El Paso are finding innovative solutions to stay ahead of the curve.  

This past week United Way awarded Fab Lab El Paso a $5,000 Community Impact grant to support the nonprofit’s COVID-19 response efforts. The fabrication lab, which was established in 2013 by executive director Cathy Chen, provides community access to digital fabrication tools and resources for skillset learning, workforce training, creative collaboration, prototype development, and product manufacture. It’s the first of its kind in the western Texas region of the United States. Under the education impact area, United Way funds Fab Lab’s Fab Kids program, which aims to provide creative educational experiences for students of all ages. 

As an entirely grassroots organization, it’s built a rapport with the community and has seen immense buy-in and engagement from average community members, especially most recently in addressing the epidemic’s associated supply chain shortage of medical supplies. With the medical community expected to be on the frontline, Fab Lab has begun the process of setting up a print farm at its makerspace to specialize in printing of a rubberlike material (TPU) and is working with other manufacturers, machinists, 3D printing hobbyists in the region to streamline production of personal protective equipment (PPE) including face shields and N95 and N95+ grade masks. 

On Thursday, Chen and her team delivered preliminary but promising prototypes of a surgical mask and a quote-on-quote respirator to Del Sol Medical Center for feedback on design and demand. The first is a simple surgical mask frame with a 3D printed elastic strap and adjusters that can be mass produced. The second more of a quote on quote respirator design features a TPU shell, which is a flexible plastic that can be disinfected, fits on the user’s face and has a 3D printed filter that is disposable. Both of these designs are optimized for usage with N100 filter material. 

Through this work, Fab Lab is not only addressing the shortage of supplies but also making improvements on existing models. Simultaneously, it’s working with a local group of advocates as well as Paso del Norte Health Foundation and Medical Center of the Americas for a more coordinated efforts across industries. 

“The role of Fab Lab is that we specialize in rapid prototyping and is very agile in our approach to the iterative design process,” said Chen. “Everyone is helping where they can or cheering us on from the sidelines.” 

Learn more about Fab Lab and its responce efforts here