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3D Printing in Play Again

By Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas

It wasn’t long after the COVID-19 situation became serious, they started coming. Emails and tags in social media to colleague Tim Haynes and I about 3D printing being used to solve various related problems, from valves of some kind for ventilators to a substitute for N95 masks. I reviewed most with interest even though Fab Lab ICC, like the rest of the Independence Community College campus, is closed until May 15. Those kinds of Internet stories are kind of vague and you wonder “OK, so if I did want to print a solution, how would I go about figuring out who would use it?” Besides, would clinical people want to use a maker-space-made solution? So, I really didn’t give much thought to trying to print any of these solutions, especially given the Lab closure, but the emails and tags kept coming and they became more specific.

Possible Substitute for the N95 Mask

As I write this, one week ahead of publishing, the first prototype N95 substitute mask has come off one of the Lab’s 3D printers, retrieved from the Lab and set up in Tim’s basement. A key email, and a seemingly unrelated zoom call to Iowa yesterday prompted us to take action without using the Lab and without violating current social distancing guidelines.

Prompting Us to Act

A key email that tipped our scale came from Senator Jerry Moran’s office asking us to consider getting involved and it even included 3D plans from another maker space for making substitute masks. Tim reviewed and wondered if the required N95 filter material would be readily available. No use printing mask frames if the filter material is not available.

Meanwhile During the Iowa Zoom Call

Meanwhile, I was reminded of a scheduled zoom call with a young guy in Iowa. Anthony Riesen had attended our Maker Space Boot Camp last September while working with our good friend at North Iowa Area Community College, Tim Putnam, to convert some of their existing technical training space into more of a community maker space. Tim Putman and Anthony had invited me to come to Iowa in April to share our experience at an event they were planning to try to inspire maker space startups in northern Iowa. This zoom call was to decide whether to hold the conference as planed albeit by zoom or to postpone. In the conversation with Anthony before others joined the call, he mentioned that his dad worked at a hospital and they were ready to 3D print a substitute N95 mask. He sent me a video by a doctor at University of Connecticut, Harford, Christopher Wiles, a first year resident passionate about 3D printing. His design uses furnace filter material.

Moving Forward

Now, there was no reason not to move forward. Not only did we have a solution developed by a doctor, but it used commonly available filter material. Tim Haynes retrieved the printers from the Lab, set them up in his basement and went to work on the first prototypes. Once we get a few of them in use at our area institutions, we can take steps to print more. One good thing is that only the filter material would be replaced. The 3D printed plastic frames can be sanitized and reused. Even if truckloads of N95 masks are available, it’s nice to know this could be a locally produced alternative. We found out just today that the Coffeyville John Deere engineers are working on the same thing so we will be collaborating with them. Others likely will come forward too.

New Form of Disruption

We use N95 masks in the Lab when we’re sanding or otherwise creating saw dust. I used N95 masks in my 10 years of sharpening tools. (Breathing carbide grinding dust is a definite no-no.) There’s a lot of room for improvement in the design of the currently mass produced N95’s. They are difficult to make fit and seal properly. An improper seal greatly reduces effectiveness. We are already thinking about ways to make these 3D printed versions better than those currently on the market. For one thing, if the part that fits to your face is saved and sanitized, we’re only one step away from being able to measure someone’s face and 3D printing a perfectly fitting mask with disposable filters. When COVID-19 has run its course, look for new, better-fitting solutions for everyone that needs to filter the air they breathe.

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu or Twitter @jimcorrellks. Archive columns and podcast at jimcorrell.com.