Southern California tech nonprofit is 3D-printing face shields — while they still can

Ted Vegvari’s tech nonprofit, PVNet, is helping create face shields but is at risk of closing

The pink plastic is the 3D printed “visor” or “headband.” It holds the clear plastic shield to the head to cover the face. [Photo courtesy of PVNet]

For the past three weeks, Ted Vegvari has been using his fleet of 3D printers to produce over 1,200 face shields for those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I go in to work on face shields at 10 a.m. and don’t leave until midnight. Our machines are printing around the clock, 24 hours a day,” Vegvari said. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

He’s since purchased even more printers and expects the weekly output to surpass 1,000.

Vegvari runs his operation out of his nonprofit, PVNet, a technology education center in Palos Verdes that provides resources and classes in STEM that focus on science, technology, education and math for people of all ages and experience levels. To provide a high-quality learning environment for students, interns, and working professionals, PVNet is equipped with the latest and most sophisticated technology — including 3D printers.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced PVNet to shut its doors, Vegvari turned the facility into a full-fledged face shield manufacturing center. Local hospitals, police and fire departments, and testing sites quickly placed large orders.

PVNet volunteer prepares a 3D printer [Photo courtesy of PVNet]

“We need to protect the people on the frontlines. I’ve had about 40 people come by in person … nurses, phlebotomists. One nurse cried when I gave her a [face shield],” Vegvari said.

Making face shields is an arduous process, and Vegvari is doing everything on his own with the help of just a few volunteers, he said. He follows the modeling guidelines of Prusa, a 3D printer company that is leading a community-driven face shield effort.

It takes one hour for a 3D printer to print one face shield visor, then Vegvari and volunteers disinfect it and smooth out the edges. They complete the face shield by applying foam lining, a clear plastic shield to cover the face, and an elastic strap to go around the back of the head. Once a batch of face shields is ready, it is then bagged, sealed, and placed on a table outside for pick up.

“It took about a week to fine-tune the production, but now we’ve got a good process in place and will start ramping up production as best we can,” Vegvari said.

PVNet Volunteer deburring the 3D printed part of a face shield [Photo courtesy of PVNet]

Although the operation is going somewhat smoothly, Vegvari said he and PVNet face a harsh reality: Between rent and overhead expenses, there isn’t enough money to keep the face shield operation going and also keep PVNet alive. Vegvari doesn’t know if PVNet will make it to the end of the month.

PVNet relies almost exclusively on grants and revenue from classes, especially from the summer session — their busiest time of year. Vegvari said shifting to remote classes is difficult since PVNet’s main objective is to help students build confidence, creativity, and interpersonal skills through hands-on instruction.

“I see kids’ eyes light up when they come in here,” Vegvari said. “We’ve seen 10,000 kids come through our program, and there’s probably 50,000 kids we can still help… I don’t want to see PVNet go away.”

Support from the community has grown in recent weeks, a welcome relief for PVNet. Jennifer Kao, a substitute teaching assistant, and Palos Verdes local, jumped at the opportunity to help when she learned what PVNet was doing.

“I saw [Vegvari’s] post on the app, Nextdoor, asking the community for PPE materials and donations,” she explained. “Once I spoke with him about the 3D printing, I asked if I could help make his post more visible.”

After gaining a head-to-toe understanding of PVNet’s operation and need for materials to produce personal protective equipment, Kao started a GoFundMe page, which includes a summary of PVNet’s mission, goals, and ways to donate or volunteer. So far, they have raised over $10,000.

“In order to go fast enough, we have to do it this way — 3D printing locally and rallying the community,” she said.

Terry Nauheim, a Palos Verdes resident and the director of the curriculum for the extension at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, also joined the effort. A former colleague of Vegvari’s, she decided to use Otis College Extension’s upcoming “Otis Art at Home” programming initiative to shed light on PVNet’s operation.

In the coming weeks, Otis College will be partnering with PVNet to create a free, hourlong online workshop that will expose students to the value of the 3D modeling and printing process in the context of the current moment — creating a physical product that can save lives.

“[Vegvari] is using his STEM operation to benefit our community in a very meaningful and critical way right now. It’s an incredible way to push design forward and put it to use,” Nauheim said. “We’ll be documenting what he’s doing and asking people to donate to PVNet.”

For one PVNet volunteer, the face shield operation hits close to home. Mei Mei Giang, 58, is a semi-retired, part-time certified registered nurse anesthetist at a local procedure center, which closed a few weeks ago due to the pandemic. She immediately began looking for ways to help her former co-workers, who tell her about the desperate need for PPE materials in hospitals.

“Masks and shields are meant for one-time use, and providers are being required to reuse everything except for gloves. It’s really not safe,” Giang said. “[Their] faces are right there in the thick of things, and they are being put at risk.”

As someone who is high-risk for contracting COVID-19, and the primary caretaker of her elderly parents, Giang said volunteering at PVNet helped her cope with the guilt she feels for not being on the frontlines herself.

“You have to do what you can, and I feel really strongly about [Vegvari’s] project,” she said. “I wish he had more people coming in, and I’m trying to recruit my friends to volunteer. I’m just doing my small part, and plan to go in every day I can.”

PVNet volunteer, Mei Mei Giang, helps fabricate face shields [Photo courtesy of PVNet]

Despite fears of having to close PVNet for good, Vegvari is determined to keep his face shield operation going for as long as possible. He continues to place orders for more 3D printers to accelerate production and shows up to PVNet seven days a week, intending to produce more face shields than he did the day before.

“You always support the army, whoever’s on the front lines, they get all the support, 100%,” he said. “I’m willing to go down the tubes in a month and a half if I know that I can print 1,000 masks and save healthcare workers’ lives.”

For more information about how to support PVNet, you can visit their GoFundMe page here.