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Flagstaff groups 3D print needed medical protection for COVID-19
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Flagstaff groups 3D print needed medical protection for COVID-19

What started off as tinkering for Elliot Martich and David Yang has become an almost full-time endeavor as the two local dentists, like other Flagstaff organizations and individuals, work to address the national shortage of personal protective equipment using 3D printers.

“We were just playing around with a lot of ideas, having fun, using what other people had created and kind of expanding on it,” said Martich, who has been using the printers at his practice, Woodlands Village Dentistry, for about four years to create objects such as dentures and night guards.

Martich began to hear about other dentists nationwide printing personal protective equipment (PPE) about three weeks ago in response to COVID-19. Shortly after, he and Yang, who owns True North Dentistry across the street and used a 3D printer for orthodontic pieces, began to discuss possible solutions using their own printers. For the last two weeks, these printers have been active almost around-the-clock ever since, creating reusable masks layer by layer using plastic filament, a process that takes almost eight hours to make a batch of four masks.

The two dentists have continued to manipulate the designs, testing them out themselves when they work with their few emergency patients each week. They estimate they are spending between four and 12 hours a day on their printing efforts, which have yielded more than 100 masks.

“It’s fun for us. It’s nice being utilized and people around the community are interested,” Martich said. “You lose track of time when you’re doing stuff like this.”

The duo is focusing on two types of masks, custom-fit masks based on face scans and the popular Montana Mask, as well as face shields. Upon request from a nurse, they have also begun printing ear guards: pieces of plastic with notches to hold back the elastic bands on surgical masks so they do not dig into the wearer’s ears.

Though each mask costs between $10 and $20 in materials to create, Martich and Yang are donating them to people who have requested them, including doctors, nurses, chiropractors and dentists locally and even a few out-of-state. They are now discussing options with Flagstaff Medical Center to create custom masks for employees, possibly by having staff send in measurements captured using a free face scanning app.

“What’s incredible is I started this to help people, but at the same time, it’s actually going to help my career in dentistry,” Yang said. “I really have learned a lot from Elliot and about different materials and what they can do. It’s a great learning curve for me, so it’s been worth every penny.”

The Montana Mask, a 3D-printed, reusable plastic face mask, was designed by a group of medical professionals in Billings, Montana, who made the design files available for free online. These masks can be customized using warm water or a hair dryer and, though not a federally approved replacement for N-95 respirators, the creators have performed successful sanitization, respiratory and fit tests on them.

The design has since been picked up throughout the world by individuals such as Martich and Yang, as well as local organizations including both Coconino Community College and Northern Arizona University.

“This is an excellent design. We looked at a couple of others and this was far and away better than any of the ones we could find. It also was, I think, the most well-researched and legitimized mask that was out there,” said Jeff Jones, dean of CCC’s career and technical education, who has been overseeing the printing using CCC’s five 3D printers.

As recommended in the Montana Mask design, the CCC team is using a plant-based plastic for the masks, allowing them to be heated up without releasing any toxic fumes, Jones said. Each mask takes the college’s printers about four hours to create and, when there are no errors in the printing, they are able to create about six to eight masks a day. The masks, which cost less than $5 to make, are being produced using existing printer materials provided through a grant from the National Science Foundation.

The idea was proposed by Michael Merica, the college’s director of institutional research, who is originally from Montana. When family members and nurses there sent him the design, he felt it was an opportunity to help address the ongoing need for PPE.

“Given that we have availability of 3D printers, it just seemed to be something that we could do to try to help support them,” Merica said. “If we are able to even just this week produce 10 masks that can go into a healthcare facility of very high need, that’s 10 healthcare providers that may be able to continue the important work they’re doing.”

After working with the Coconino County Department of Health and Human Services on determining a recipient, CCC sent its first set of masks, created last week, to the hospital in Tuba City.

Cline Library at NAU has similarly begun to print the Montana Mask, using about 18 of the 3D printers in its 4-year-old Maker Lab. The university was approached by Guardian Air about printing masks and was able to create the requested 100 in about 48 hours. They were sold at cost — about $5 a mask — to Guardian Air.

As a result, NAU has since received requests from other organizations and is starting to fulfill these orders, a new process for the library, which usually offers its printers mostly for student projects.

“Because we’re a publicly funded institution, we have not gone into the field of providing production services for businesses, but because this is a unique, unprecedented situation, we got some approvals to go ahead and provide those production services for this specific type of PPE equipment,” said Kathleen Schmand, director of development and communications for the library.

Schmand estimated the library would likely be able to fulfill similarly sized orders to that placed by Guardian Air, but not large requests for 1,000 or more masks.

Craig Asplund, chemist and owner of MollyCoddlers, a Flagstaff-based business that creates single-use drug tests to show if a street drug has been altered, purchased four 3D printers specifically for creating needed PPE. With the postponement of large festivals, attendees of which are MollyCoddlers’ target audience, Asplund has since switched the business’s main focus to producing this equipment.

“With the premise that we’re a harm reduction company, it was a no-brainer to switch over to the needs of society,” Asplund said.

So far, Asplund has printed about 100 masks, using another open source design, NanoHack, and has enough plastic left for a few thousand more. He expects to be able to create several hundred face shields, as well, once he finds a consistent design, and is working with FMC to begin fitting his created masks to health care workers’ faces.

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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