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Univ. of Idaho staff work to 3D print face masks, shields for healthcare workers

A University of Idaho professor recently saw news of shortages of protective equipment for healthcare workers across the country and decided to help.

MOSCOW, Idaho — Staff at the University of Idaho are doing their part to help healthcare workers dealing with shortages of protective gear by 3D printing face masks and face shields.

University of Idaho mechanical engineering professor Gabriel Potirniche recently saw news of shortages of protective equipment for healthcare workers across the country amidst the coronavirus pandemic. He also heard of reports of 3D printers being used to combat the problem.

"I just have a feeling of duty, that this is my duty to help," he said.

He decided to use the University of Idaho’s 25 3D printers to help. The school’s engineering department has 12 of its own 3D printers. Based on existing designs, engineering faculty and others quickly developed prototypes for face shields and face masks.

"It replicates the shape of the N95 mask. It's made out of plastic and it has a rubber edge, so when it touches the face, it completely seals the space between the face and the mask," he said.

He got the design from a dentist's office in Billings, Montana. They modified it to put a square patch of fabric in the middle that acts as a filter. A different team from U of I is working on fabric materials to use as the filter.

The masks originally took about six hours to 3D print, but Potirniche and the team cut that time down to two and a half hours. They can make about a dozen masks per day, per 3D printer.

"We hope that these masks can be cleaned and recycled very easily," he said.

As of Wednesday, staff at a rehab facility in Clarkston have been testing the masks and face shields out. They'll then give Potirniche feedback. The hope is to work with the state health department to hand the protective gear out to healthcare workers in need.

"The worst thing that could happen is that we'd never have to use [the masks], which would be the best-case scenario," he said.

He said if healthcare workers stay healthy, we all stay healthy. The team hopes to start producing the masks and face shields on a larger scale within a day or two.

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