Future Broncos use talents to help frontline health care workers

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Members of Western Michigan University’s incoming freshman class are leading the charge to equip critical care providers battling the novel coronavirus pandemic. Using their engineering skills, they’re crafting personal protective equipment for health care professionals across the country.

“My goal is to do as much as I can to help people in need,” says Ryan Barker, a Wisconsin high school senior.

Both he and Michael Mills, who is set to graduate high school soon in Florida, are receiving press and praise for their efforts to give back in this time of crisis. They’ll be in good company when they join the WMU community in the fall, where several departments and units are also using their equipment and skills to make essential supplies for doctors and nurses.

ENGINEERING AID

Ryan Barker sits next to dozens of masks he

As classrooms across the country sit idle, a laboratory of sorts has sprung up inside Barker’s home in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. His basement is buzzing with activity around the clock as 15 3D printers crank out parts for reusable face masks.

“It makes me feel good that I can use my skill set that I have learned over the years to be able to help people and possibly save lives,” says Barker, who has dedicated much of his free time the past four years to community service.

Currently, Barker can produce about 30 masks per day, using printers he’s amassed from Manitowoc Lincoln High School and the Lakeshore FIRST Robotics program, as well as those he already owned or bought using donations from his Facebook fundraising page. He also has volunteers working with him to sew the replaceable N95 and HEPA filters that go into the devices. When two more printers arrive, he’ll be able to increase production to about 50 masks per day.

“With the COVID-19 outbreak, everything that I was used to be doing on a daily basis came to an end. I found myself with a ton of free time,” Barker says. “I wanted to find something that I could do with my time that would benefit people in need … and now I am able to do that with my skill set.”

Barker found a passion for 3D modeling and printing through high school engineering programs and a youth apprenticeship program. It’s allowed him to hone his skills at Jagemann Stamping Co., a full-service metal stamping operation where he’s been able to gain roughly 2,000 hours of field work experience as an engineer.

“Throughout high school, my career goals shifted from a pilot to an engineer, and when I found out that WMU had aerospace engineering, I knew that it was the school for me,” he says.

With dreams of working at an aerospace company after college, Barker is confident that WMU has the program he needs for his future to take flight.

“I believe my time at Western will help me achieve my dream, because WMU alum are known for finding a job after graduation in the field that they want, and they are enjoying it!”

Barker has created a fundraising page to help boost his production, and plans to continue creating and distributing reusable face masks until there’s no longer a need for them. Whatever money is not used to produce masks will be donated to Lakeshore FIRST Robotics.

SELF-TAUGHT SUPPORT

Michael Mills sits near his 3D printer.

Right now, Mills should be enjoying senior trips and managing the stage for his high school’s musical—something he’s looked forward to for six years. Instead, he’s spending his final weeks as a senior isolated from his classmates. But, he’s found a new way to fill his time: creating face shields for frontline health care workers.

“My main goal with making these is to help out the people who are fighting to keep the rest of us safe and healthy,” he says. “I just wanted to see what I could do for my community.”

At his house in Sarasota, Florida, he’s put his self-taught 3D printing skills to work, using two printers to create headbands and then attaching sheets of transparency film to create the shields. Enlisting some help from his mom, he’s able to assemble about 30 pieces of equipment per day.

“The face shields are going to hospitals around the area and to people who have loved ones in the medical field,” says Mills.

Mills demonstrates how his 3D printer works.

Mills says 3D printing is just a hobby. His real passion is aviation, which he’ll continue at WMU in the flight management program. For now, though, he’ll continue making as many face shields as he can, and sending them to professionals in need across the country. He’s heard from recipients as far away as Washington, D.C., who are grateful for the support.

“I’m just happy to see people are getting good use out of the things that I am making.”

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.