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Student uses know-how, home equipment to make face shields


Between classes, a Pennsylvania College of Technology student modified a computer numerical control router that he typically uses for woodworking projects to help manufacture more than 300 face shields for distribution to hospitals in his area.

Matthew A. Semmel, of Palmerton, is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in engineering design technology and an associate degree in plastics and polymer technology. Due to the pandemic, he – like all other Penn College students – has been taking classes remotely since mid-March to comply with the state’s stay-at-home order and social distancing guidance.

Brackets for face shields to be used by health care workers are cut from a polycarbonate sheet on a CNC router. Pennsylvania College of Technology student Matthew Semmel, of Palmerton, modified his CNC router to cut the pieces between classes while studying from home.
Brackets for face shields to be used by health care workers are cut from a polycarbonate sheet on a CNC router. Pennsylvania College of Technology student Matthew Semmel, of Palmerton, modified his CNC router to cut the pieces between classes while studying from home.

He makes the face shields by CNC-cutting an upper bracket from 3/16 polycarbonate sheets to fit around a person’s head. Transparency film sheets are used for the front face shield by using a three-hole punch to make holes that attach to tabs on the polycarbonate bracket.

Semmel explained that a small piece of backer rod – flexible foam typically used in home improvement projects – is added to the polycarbonate bracket to make the shield more comfortable to wear for long periods of time, and a piece of elastic banding is used around the back hooks of the bracket to keep it from falling off.

In addition to his X-Carve CNC router – which, he notes, is very similar to the one in the college’s Dr. Welch Workshop: A Makerspace at Penn College – he used an online computer-aided manufacturing  software program called Easel, which works with his router, as well as SolidWorks, a computer-aided drafting program, to edit the design he had received to make the back hooks for the bracket thicker, allowing it to be cut more easily on his router.

“The overall process was taking 4-foot-by-4-foot sheets of polycarbonate and cutting them down on a table saw so they would fit on the X-Carve, milling out the brackets and finally cutting the elastic banding as well as the backer rod to size,” he said.

He then sent the pieces off to Brent Green, a township supervisor in Semmel’s hometown, for assembly.

Green, for whom Semmel had done work before, brought the idea to Semmel. Green saw the idea in an article by Better Block, a nonprofit organization that seeks to help communities improve their neighborhoods, one city block at a time.

One hundred brackets, to be used to make face shields for health care workers, are stacked and ready for assembly. More than 300 brackets were made by Semmel.
One hundred brackets, to be used to make face shields for health care workers, are stacked and ready for assembly. More than 300 brackets were made by Semmel.

“The site had the plans and material specifications for the project and was giving them out for download for anyone who had a CNC machine that could help make the head brackets,” Semmel said. “Mr. Green and I worked out materials and planning for the project based on my machine’s working capacity.”

Semmel directs others who might be interested in making the shields to the Better Block website.

“Once I had the process down and all the variables removed, I could make 12 brackets in 1.5 hours on the machine, with additional machine setup and unloading, so overall, I could make one shield every 10 minutes, fully assembled,” Semmel said.

As a result, Semmel not only helped his community, but gained experience that he believes will help him in his plastics career.

“It has showed me project planning and every aspect that goes into it, such as costing, material selection, fabrication methods, cycle time and post-processing,” Semmel said. “This has also helped me have a better understanding for my plastics career of the physical characteristics of different plastic materials and how to process them properly by using the right tooling and machine settings, and working around material limitations.”

“Penn College has helped me greatly with its focus on a hands-on approach to learning to allow me to tackle any project or job head-on with knowledge and confidence,” he added.

“Tomorrow makers, like Matthew, are continuing to make a difference throughout our nation,” said Bradley M. Webb, the college’s dean of industrial, computing and engineering technologies. “I’m humbled by the ingenuity, creative thinking and technical expertise Matthew was able to apply to combat the coronavirus in his hometown.”

In addition to the bachelor’s degree in engineering design technology, Penn College offers an associate degree in engineering CAD technology and is one of six institutions nationwide offering plastics degrees that are accredited by the Engineering Technology Accreditation Commission of ABET.

To learn more about those majors and other academic programs offered by Penn College’s School of Industrial, Computing & Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520.

For information about Penn College, a national leader in applied technology education, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free at 800-367-9222.

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