As Kentucky does its best to battle the spread of COVID-19, state officials and medical providers have been looking for ways to answer the increasing need for medical personal protective equipment. One of those responding in a big way here in Kentucky is a somewhat unlikely source: Somerset Community College.
Somerset Community College was the first higher education institution in Kentucky to offer a statewide certificate in additive manufacturing, also called 3D printing, and thanks to the passion of Additive Manufacturing Professor Eric Wooldridge and Rural Business Development Grants in both fiscal year 2017 and 2019, the program has earned a reputation as a leader in the state in 3D printing education and technical assistance.
Here in Kentucky, parts manufacturers in both the aircraft and automobile industries are big employers, and additive manufacturing–and the associated jobs–is growing across those as well as many other industries because it has a number of advantages over traditional manufacturing. Eric told me one of those is the ability to quickly transition between products.
In fact, it only took a few hours to go from printing student projects to printing and assembling the first face shield prototypes, and when there was a requested design change, an updated prototype was ready in less than 20 minutes with finished versions coming out within the hour. Now that they have a finalized design, they are printing and assembling over 100 face shields per hour. Eric, who is basically living out of his office to continue the process 24/7 with the help of some rotating staff members, said they’ve also shared the specifications with networked additive manufacturers so they could also begin production. This rapid response to a supply chain shortcoming is just another advantage of additive manufacturing.
“We couldn’t be doing this without the support of the National Science Foundation and Rural Development,” Wooldridge told me. “NSF and Rural Development grants were essential in getting the equipment and materials and training people how to use it all.”
At Rural Development, our mission is to improve the economy and way of life in rural America, and partners like Somerset Community College remind me there are good stories like this all across this great country. Time and again, when America is united in attaining a common goal, we band together, and that is part and parcel to rural culture. Whether it’s family helping family or neighbor helping neighbor, rural America knows that together, America prospers.