December 3, 2020

What First Robotics Teams Did on Their Summer Break

Saved lives by creating PPE
By Ross Boissoneau | Sept. 12, 2020

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, masks, face shields, and other personal protection equipment, aka PPE, were hard to come by. As the federal government and states scrambled to gather what they could from manufacturers of all industries, the state of Michigan also put out the call to a less obvious but equally capable sect of engineering and production minds: the students and advisors of the state’s First Robotics teams.

Among those who came to the rescue: RoboVikes, Delta Force, and the BI Robot team. Those are the teams from Grayling High School, Inland Lakes Secondary School in Indian River, and Beaver Island Community School, respectively. As part of the First in Michigan's COVID-19 Call to Action, team advisors and even members from those First Robotics teams stepped in to help supply the needed equipment.

Kevin Boyle, who advises the team at Beaver Island, said a scheduled robotics competition was canceled the day the school was getting ready to fly out to compete. The team’s robot was already on its way. “We sent the robot out, and got word that all the weekend events were postponed,” he said. The next day, the school shut down.

With no competition and no school, Boyle was looking for something to do with the equipment. “The company that made our 3D printer had a program for PPE in Europe,” he said. Soon the Beaver Island team was in gear, running its printer some 20 hours a day making N95 masks and face shield frames. “We donated a lot to our health center on the island.”

The story was much the same at the other schools. Kelly LaPeer from Inland Lakes said she had both 3D printers at her home, so she sent one to one of her team members. They were both soon creating and providing PPE to hospitals and retailers. “I think we made 1,500 bands (to hook to face shields), close to a thousand ear savers (to enable the shields to be worn more comfortably), and a number of masks,” she said.

Among the recipients was McLaren Northern Michigan in Petoskey, as well as other essential workers. “We supplied them to the post office in Indian River and Afton, healthcare centers — we’d get up in the morning and run it all day, then turn it off at night,” LaPeer said.

Rick McBride is the advisor for the RoboVikes, the First Robotics program in Grayling. When the pandemic hit, he heard that the hospital in Alpena was in need of PPE. Because the school was shut down, he got permission from the principal and superintendent at Grayling to use the team’s 3D printers to create face shields. “We were making 20 or so a day. Between my wife and I, we would get up in the middle of the night for a month and a half” to monitor the printers, he said.

All told, teams from the program in Michigan are credited with providing 96,138 face shields; 2,161,430 face masks and accessories; and 3,258 pairs of safety glasses. The total of 2,260,826 pieces of safety equipment produced eclipsed the goal of 1,000,000.

While the shutdown situation in Northern Michigan eased after the first couple of months of the pandemic, the need for PPE didn’t. “When things started opening up, we were contacted by a lot of businesses: chiropractors, banks, 7-Eleven, floral,” McBride said. 

The school closure not only ended robotics competitions for the year but also meant that the advisors had to take on most if not all the responsibility for creating the PPE. They all agreed they wished more students could have participated. “I wanted to have students doing this, but because of the shutdown … we couldn’t have an assembly line project,” said McBride.

Another challenge was simply getting enough equipment. LaPeer said the filament used in the 3D printing is in high demand. “I’ve burned out one extruder. The beds are going to have to be replaced,” she said.

Boyle said he tried to get additional 3D printers, but they were back-ordered, with one finally arriving in late July and another in August, one of which was donated by a local businessperson. “We now have four that are nearly identical. They’re ready to go.” 

While the emergency need has eased, the equipment — and the advisors — are ready to return to action at a moment’s notice. “If we need to do it, we can pick it up,” Boyle.

Or maybe they never even stopped. “We’re still going,” said LaPeer. “There’s such a demand in the U.P.”

*Pictured above: Frederick Township EMS, sporting some of the face shields provided by Grayling's RoboVikes.

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