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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

If you have a 3-D printer, you can help. Maybe.

By GRACE KELLY/ecoRI News staff

The surgeon general wants Americans to stop buying face masksThree-D printers have become more and more commonplace — you can buy a cheap one online for around $180. Libraries have them; schools have them; makerspaces have them. 

I even have cousins who built their own 3-D printer in their parents’ basement just for kicks.

But these semi-ubiquitous devices could go beyond being a fun educational tool, and in the fight against the coronavirus, could prove vital to creating personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep hospital personnel safe.

“Honestly, I did not initially anticipate that 3-D printing had any real role in addressing the coronavirus pandemic, particularly regarding the severe limitation in access to PPE,” said Dr. Albert Woo, director of Lifespan’s 3-D printing lab and an associate professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. 

“I had seen an article about 3-D printing of Venturi valves in Italy and forwarded this to the CMO. My partner similarly forwarded a different article on 3-D printing to help with coronavirus the following day, roughly three weeks ago. I was shocked by an overwhelming interest from the hospital administration asking what we could do to help with the issues of PPE.”


The chief of pediatric plastic surgery at Hasbro Children’s Hospital started researching prototypes for face masks and began communicating with other local experts in the 3-D printing realm.

“In this process we communicated with multiple individuals whom I knew to be experts in 3-D printing and modeling,” Woo said.

Among the people and organizations Woo connected with were a physician from Women & Infants Hospital, an engineering team at the University of Rhode Island, and Kelly Egan, an instructional multimedia coordinator who manages the multimedia labs at Brown University.

“I’ve been active in the local 3-D printing community for a while now,” Egan said. “I also manage a media lab at Brown, and we oversee 3-D printers there, and that’s how I kind of got connected on this project.”

Hospital workers, academics, and 3-D printing aficionados came together to try to make 3-D printed N95-quality masks a reality. While they expect to soon have a model ready, it hasn’t been easy.
“We have successfully developed a mask which we plan to use as an N95 mask,” Woo said. 

“The device has already passed fit testing by 10 volunteers. We are now in the process of trying to mass produce the device with the assistance of medical student volunteers in preparation for the anticipated coronavirus surge in the next couple weeks.”

Egan, a Providence resident, explained the evolution of the process.

“There’s a lot of people around the world printing face shields, and we started out doing some tests of those, but it seemed the hospitals’ needs were different; there was a need for replacement for the N95 respirator masks,” he said. 

“We’re working on ways to produce those types of masks which are a little bit harder to make, because they have to be sealed around your face, they have to fit your face.”
The team started out by printing designs that were already out there on the internet, but it found most were inadequate or overly complicated.

“We’ve been doing a lot of prototyping and looking at other people’s designs,” Egan said. “There were a couple designs on the internet, and we printed them out and realized they were clearly failures. We couldn’t get them to seal around the face, or they took too much work; some of them required you to print it and then fold it around your face while it was still hot, which didn’t seem like the route to go.”

Woo noted that a 3-D printed mask isn’t purely a printed product; it has multiple components that go into it. The most important aspect, he said, was that they wanted to create a mask that offers the same protection as a N95.

“Any N95 mask device would ideally be comfortable, easy to breathe, made out of skin-safe products, and hopefully tolerable for long periods of time,” Woo said. “Most importantly, it must be safe, effectively filtering out 0.3-micron particulates as effectively as a regular disposable N95 mask.”

To do this, the masks need to include filters from actual N95 masks.

“Filters come from actual N95 masks, which can be cut into several parts,” Woo said. “By using our mask, we can effectively quadruple the number of N95 masks available by getting four filters per mask. The filters would also be better preserved, and the masks themselves would be easily sterilizable and reusable.”

Now that they have neared development on a model, the next step is getting it into production. While the ideal situation would involve manufacturers with highly refined 3-D printers at their disposal, both Woo and Egan noted that time is of utmost importance, and waiting for manufacturers to get onboard, while the end goal, might take too long.

“Manufacturing takes weeks if not months to appropriately outfit factories and get the necessary tooling,” Woo said. “For example, I don’t see any ventilators coming out of GM yet. As a bridge to manufacturing, we are currently hand-producing the masks ourselves with the help of Brown medical student volunteers.”

Egan said they hope to put out a call to people in the community who have 3-D printers and who would be willing to help.

“Right now we’re just trying to get the design right and once that’s done, we’re hopefully going to reach out and start asking community members to print them,” he said. 

“There’s a couple designs that I think will come out quickly, but now we just need the manpower to produce them all. We’re trying to build up a group of people; we will need some people to print, and then we need another group of volunteers that would be able to sit there and manufacture them, take the parts and put them together into masks, so we’re trying to find those two groups of people.”

The team is working to create a website that would allow people to volunteer their 3-D printing and/or manufacturing services.