For Illinois teen, a 3-D printer becomes a tool to help health-care workers

Normally early spring marks a time of transition for David Simmons, from the basketball court to the baseball diamond, from playing point guard to manning second base. But this year was unlike any other, for him and everyone else, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

With sports canceled and school in his small Illinois town of Monmouth moved online, the 13-year-old shifted the focus of his free time. He read news reports about health-care workers treating patients with covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes, without adequate personal protective equipment such as masks and face shields. An avid user of 3-D printing technology, he sought a way to put that passion to use helping the nation at a time of need.

The goal set him off on a quest that, after hours of research and tinkering, succeeded. He printed his first batch of adjustable plastic headbands that hold see-through face shields in early March and has been printing them as fast as he can.

“Cass County Health Department wants to personally thank David, a 13-year-old boy, who donated face shields to our office,” read a Facebook post by the first recipients of the shields. “What a terrific young man! Thank you again, David!”

Seeing posts like that, and pictures of doctors and nurses wearing the shields, deepened his passion to keep printing.

“I love that because that shows me that all my work is actually doing good for people who need it,” he said. “That’s the best part of it.”

The worst part? The seemingly constant snags and malfunctions he encounters with the printer. His printer is in the office of his family’s house that he jokingly calls the “Savin’ Lives Headquarters.” He and his three brothers bought it with money they’ve saved from small businesses they started: hand-knitting hats and mowing neighbors’ lawns.

When everything is running smoothly, the printer produces eight headbands in 24 hours. It’s a complicated process that involves programming the machine, which builds the products by stacking layer after layer of melted filament string, as directed by the instructions.

Once the band is done, Simmons attaches it to a clear plastic sheet, similar to the transparency sheets teachers use on overhead projectors. Another plastic piece attaches to the bottom to hold the shield in place.

He’s completed and distributed 55 so far, but there have been plenty of failures, too.

“I have to do a lot of troubleshooting and modifications,” he said. His mounting frustration can be seen in file names he’s sent to the printer: iwouldlikethisto work, iwantthistoworkalot, letshope, pleeeeeeeease.

But technical difficulties have proved to be only temporary detours as he continues his daily quest to produce more shields. The need has grown, nationally and locally. Monmouth, his hometown, briefly became a coronavirus hot spot. A local meat-processing facility was the site of an outbreak. Despite its small size and remote location, Warren County had one of the highest infection rates in Illinois for a short time in early May.

But in 3-D printing, as in sports, perseverance pays off. And the satisfaction only deepens when things work out in the end. In this case, that means seeing his shields protecting the faces of health-care workers, knowing he’s created something that improves safety and can truly save lives.

“I know all the time and struggle that went into it,” he said.