LONGMONT — A Longmont manufacturing consulting company is 3D printing free masks, arming non-medical workers with protection from airborne particles while N95 masks and respirators are high in demand.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises the public to not use masks for personal use unless ill or caring for an ill person. This saves supplies for medical providers who are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Source. Refurbish. Distribute. Support. That’s the four-step approach undertaken by PCs for People, a nonprofit established in 1998 committed to leveling up digital equity and digital inclusion for kids, families, individuals and organizations in Colorado and across the nation.
But the demand for masks, while high among medical providers, extends beyond that market, giving companies like H2 Manufacturing Solutions LLC of Longmont an opportunity to participate in finding solutions.
The genesis of an idea
Lisa Poppaw, executive director of Crossroads Safehouse in Fort Collins and a former Fort Collins City Council member, had been on the Larimer County waiting list for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved face masks for more than a week.
Crossroads Safehouse provides advocacy, legal assistance, transitional and emergency housing, education, food and clothing for domestic abuse victims and their families.
“It’s been well over a week that we’ve been on the list, and I’m guessing that we’re not a high priority, given that we’re not dealing directly with patients, which is rightly so,” Poppaw said. However, she’s concerned about workers and clients not wearing personal protective masks.
Poppaw could find only 100 disposable masks in the organization’s possession. Its safehouse has 28 rooms without any vacancies. The nonprofit has 29 people on the payroll with eight of them onsite at the emergency shelter and the rest working from home.
Poppaw said that it’s not about if but when a worker or client comes in contact with COVID-19.
“My biggest concern is not having enough staff and having to relocate people who are already in crisis,” Poppaw said. “They’re already feeling traumatized. And, you know, putting this on top of it is just like a double whammy.”
Poppaw contacted an old friend, Heidi Hostetter, president of Frederick-based H2 Manufacturing Solutions, looking for spare masks. Hostetter was also low on supplies.
Hostetter called back with an idea: Why not print masks themselves? Nathan Morimitsu, director of operations for H2, found a 3D printer open source file from Copper 3D, a Chilean/U.S.-based company.
H2 Manufacturing is a small company not yet impacted by COVID-19. It decided that it could produce masks and offer them free to others needing them.
“We won’t be charging for the masks,” Morimitsu said. “We’re not going to monetize tragedy. That just doesn’t feel right to us.”
Production will begin next week after receiving the proper equipment and materials.
So far, Crossroads, Children’s Hospital Colorado, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Denver, and Good Samaritan Hospital in Lafayette are waiting for H2 masks. They won’t be for medical professional use “but auxiliary employees who are not always patient facing but are still vital to the operation of the hospital.”
The 3D process
Morimitsu has two 3D printers of his own but purchased 13 printers from XYZprinting Inc. Add that to the cost of materials and H2 Manufacturing is out $6,000.
“We’re just basically taking what would have been our profits from the last couple of months and taking that into this project because, as Heidi says, ‘Sometimes you just have to figure out how to pay for it later because it’s the right thing to do at the time,’” Morimitsu said.
Morimitsu improved on the design, changing the threaded fitting assembly method to a snap-fit technique. The original tutorial called for glueing parts together, but he opted for a soldering iron, creating a better seal. Rather than 3D printing the filter, his version uses vacuum bags, which restrict particles better than the FDA approved N95 masks, he said.
He purchased 13 kilograms of copper-filled Polylactide (PLA) 3D printing filament, which he thinks will yield at least 1,500 masks. If he cannot access more PLA in the future, he will try another material. However, alternatives are not preferred; PLA is biodegradable under the right circumstances and copper surfaces and alloys are antimicrobial.
A 2016 study from the National Institute of Health on the antiviral effect of solid-state copper and silver compounds tested samples against Influenza A. It found that copper creates a hostile environment to viruses. A 2015 study from the University of Southampton tested the human coronavirus 229E strain on copper surfaces. The result was that the virus “can remain infectious on common surface materials for several days but is rapidly destroyed on copper.”
Morimitsu advised users of the H2 masks to wash them between uses with soap and water or disinfectant wipes. The filter media, vacuum bags, are easy to access and should be regularly changed out.
Expanding the workforce
Morimitsu is a former adjunct professor for Front Range Community College and taught courses in graphic design. Several past students contacted him after getting laidoff. A couple have 3D printers in their homes and are volunteering with production.
“We quickly realized the real magic is partnering with students out of school and professionals laid off from their industries to start providing safer masks at a faster pace. People just want to help, so they answered our call,” Hostetter said.
Of the 13 printers purchased by H2 Manufacturing, 10 are going to Colorado Tech Shop Inc., a contract manufacturing company in Longmont. Morimitsu said that equipment, material and training will be provided at no cost to Colorado Tech Shop in exchange for making masks.
Though the masks won’t generate revenue, the project is keeping Colorado Tech Shop employees from losing hours.
H2 Manufacturing is looking for volunteers and donations, whether that’s materials, equipment or money for the project. Interested parties can contact Morimitsu by emailing email@example.com. The altered design of the masks will be available on Thingiverse.com after refinements for anyone wanting to create the masks. The original Copper 3D design is currently on the same site.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the location of the company. It has moved from Frederick to Longmont. The number of masks to be created was also corrected to 1,500.