Rwanda's Fablab Shifts Focus to Production of Face Shields

A quick tour in a room full of computer-guided fabrication tools, like laser cutters and mills for carving materials, gives one a glimpse into the future of technology and possibilities that could be created if innovators are empowered.

A team of young tech innovators comprised of engineers, product developers, and designers in separate rooms is working to make sure that they hit the target of producing urgently needed face shields.

In the room next to the entrance of the facility, individuals seated on their computers are busy designing face shields, while in the following room, others are cutting materials that will be used to make face shields using laser machines.

In the third room, workers are assembling the face shields, and packaging them before they could be delivered to hospitals.

This is FabLab, an innovation space that was previously busy training individuals to produce hardware solutions to solve some of the community challenges.

Barely a month ago, has a team of Rwandan technology innovators at FabLab Rwanda prototyped what was the first face shield to be made locally.

Today, that prototype has attracted the attention of hospitals and individuals who think they can use them to protect medical workers in different hospital establishments.

Simply put, it is a micro-factory that is currently producing personal protective equipment (PPE) whose demand has recently risen, creating shortage in some markets.

"What we are doing is helping the country to fight this (COVID-19) pandemic," Danny Bizimana, one of the mechanical engineers at this facility and the General Manager of FabLab says.

Members working with FabLab have previously produced prosthetics using 3D printing technology, made aquarium systems that monitor fish life cycle, set up water treatment technology, and printed various wooden materials.

With the pandemic, early last month they decided to shift focus to go into the manufacturing operations of face shields, which protect frontline responders to COVID-19.

"We tried our hands on ventilators but we realized it was costing a lot of time, so we decided to focus on this project of making face shields," Bizimana notes.

Face shields are currently needed by not just healthcare workers who work on the frontline but they are also becoming part of the attires that industries like aviation will need post lockdowns.

Some airlines are already planning to equip their cabin crew members with face shields, gowns and goggles as part of their attire on commercial passenger flights when they resume operations.

And now big companies including Apple, Ford, Nike and Amazon are making face shields too.

FabLab has joined global efforts to produce these PPE and Bizimana says they are able to produce at least 500 face shields per day or even go beyond depending on the demand.

The full-face shield being produced by FabLab perfectly curves around the face. And it goes lower enough to ensure that droplets won't enter into the mask.

This, coupled with the face mask, can provide employee protection as well as keep patients safe.

When Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) facilitated Rwanda to establish the first fab lab - a digital fabrication laboratory - the idea was to educate the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators, but nobody knew that a few years later it would become a hub for commercial products.

Four years later, Bizimana says there is a lot of optimism that FabLab could move to develop solutions that are transformative in nature, and that's just the spirit that members have to realize that vision.

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