Donor gives new 3D printers to Southeast Whitfield High, helping school make protective equipment for healthcare workers

Ben Oliver/Whitfield County Schools

The addition of three new 3D printers from an anonymous donor has allowed Southeast Whitfield High School to dramatically ramp up production of face shields, as well as to start making ear savers, for healthcare workers. 

Following a pair of Whitfield County Schools utilizing 3D printers to produce protective face shield frames for healthcare workers, an anonymous benefactor has donated three state-of-the-art 3D printers, with supplies and materials, to Southeast Whitfield High School.

"I don't know the exact value, but they would be expensive," said Judy Gilreath, superintendent of Whitfield County Schools. The new printers are "a tremendous asset."

That's the case not only now, while they're producing protective face shields and ear savers, but also in the future, when students will use them to further their education, said Ben Oliver, an instructor in Southeast’s drafting, design and engineering pathway who is spearheading the healthcare equipment production process. "This is the same type of printer Fortune 500 companies have, and, honestly, we have a leg up on most colleges, (so) the sky is the limit."

Following an April story in the Daily Citizen-News about Southeast and Northwest Whitfield High School using 3D printers to produce face protectors for local healthcare professionals, an anonymous donor reached out to Oliver intent on providing not only additional printers, but supplies and equipment, Oliver said. The printers have been up-and-running since mid-April, and "we went from about 24 shields per week to now about 400-500 per week."

"On top of that, we started (making) ear savers, which hold the strips of masks back away from the ears," reducing pressure and friction from the ears, he said. "Wearing a mask eight hours a day, or more, can really take a toll on your ears."

Southeast's ear savers are "hard plastic that can be sanitized, and we're trying to cater to all the local hospitals and clinics," he said. "We've had 3,000 orders for them."

Southeast can produce roughly 200 ear savers in a three-day printing cycle, he said. The school can manufacture 250-300 face shields each four-day cycle.

"It's awesome," he said. "It's time-consuming, but I enjoy it, and I know what it's doing for our community."

When this process began a couple of months ago, Southeast and Northwest were producing frames for face shields, then Shaw Industries was cutting plastic and putting them together, Oliver said. Shaw has since returned to regular operations, and Northwest wound down its process since Southeast received the new Stratasys F170 printers, so "we are doing the entire process at Southeast."

Members of the school's faculty are "hand-cutting the plastic" for the shields, among other contributions, he said. "We've made it into a school (project)."

When Southeast adopted a #BetterTogether theme at the start of this school year, inspired by the system's #OneWhitfield mantra, "we had no idea how perfect our theme would turn out to be, (but) the teachers at Southeast have always jumped in to help whenever they are needed, (and) our faculty makes a tremendous impact on students and the community, (so) I am not surprised at the extraordinary giving that our teachers have shown over the last two months," said Denise Pendley, Southeast's principal. "The new 3D printers have helped us give back to our community during this difficult time."

Oliver is taking this process "six weeks at a time, (and) our plan is to run through the first week of June, (which) would put us at about 3,000 shields and 3,000 ear savers," he said. "I know we have material until then, and we'll reassess at that point."

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