Supporting the Frontline

Kyle Vallone wearing one of his face shields / Courtesy of Kyle Vallone

A Tesoro High School student turns 3D printing into a lifesaving resource for frontline workers.

The effects of the pandemic took hold quickly. 

But as the disease sickened and killed people, shut down businesses and closed schools, the frontline workers stayed on. 

Even with parts of his junior year in high school thrown into limbo, Kyle Vallone was worried about them. He just wanted to help, so Vallone partnered with his school district’s career technical education director and Lake Forest-based company MatterHackers and started Operation Capo Cares. 

Together they’ve produced at least 1,000 plastic face shields for doctors and nurses across the country, with the intent of making a lot more. 

The Tesoro High School student’s family had just sold their house when the lockdown came. And unfortunately, they hadn’t found a new one yet. 

“My grandparents offered to let us temporarily move in while we were looking for houses,” he says. “Right after we moved in with them, the stay-at-home orders started being issued and houses stopped being listed at the typical rate.”

But the downtime with the family provided more benefits than he’d originally thought. 

“I was thankful we could protect my grandparents, who are in a high-risk group, by not going out,” he says. “With extra time due to distance learning, I started researching ways I could contribute [to] help ‘flatten the curve.’”

He discovered Northern California volunteer group Operation Shields Up using 3D printing at home to make some of the personal protective equipment health care workers desperately need to do their now dangerous work. It was perfect. And he quickly found several approved designs he could make.

3D printers help make face shields for health care workers on the frontline. / Courtesy of Kyle Vallone

But he still needed some help to make the idea work. 

“I contacted Capistrano Unified School District officials when I realized their 40-some printers were sitting idle on middle and high school campuses,” he says. 

He set up Operation Capo Cares with career tech education director Pati Romo and they quickly recruited teachers Mark Bowie from Capistrano Valley High School and Chuck Hobbs from Vista Del Mar Middle School and got the printers out to other students. 

“I know not every family can afford a 3D printer,” Vallone says. “That’s why it’s so wonderful that Operation Capo Cares is providing students with the opportunity to borrow printers so everyone can work on this at a safe distance.”

Through the operation, a Google Classroom was set up to allow students to ask questions, get tips on maintenance and settings, and track their progress. According to Vallone, the design can be printed in between 30 minutes and two hours, depending on a printer’s settings and specifications.

Lake Forest 3D printing company MatterHackers had already organized a pipeline of donations to hospitals, so Vallone’s group got in communication with them, but they still needed more. 

“I also started contacting Dell, where my father works, to see if they wanted to support our initiative. In just a couple of days, they set up a $5,000 donation for us to purchase supplies through Athena, the nonprofit that MatterHackers’ initiative is working with.” Vallone says the money “will keep us printing for weeks.” 

And what a couple of weeks it’s been so far. 

“In just two weeks, we have made over 1,000 parts, but production is still ramping up as we distribute more printers,” he says. 

Those shields have gone to hospitals like Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, NewYork-Presbyterian, Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, and Palo Alto Medical Center, among others, but Vallone says any hospital in need can request face shields from MatterHackers.

“The more we spread awareness about this initiative and recruit more makers to start printing parts, the more hospitals we can help,” he says. 

Vallone’s downtime has turned into a lifesaving venture. But he just saw an opportunity. 

“I’m just happy that I can be making a difference instead of letting time waste away during quarantine,” he says. “I don’t have the skills or the experience to be on the frontlines, so the very best I can do is contribute to an effort for those who are, and raising awareness about these initiatives. We’re not just helping the medical professionals on the frontlines stay safe, we’re helping their patients too by preventing the spread.”

— By Shawn Price