Fabricating for the Pandemic

With the medical community facing a shortage of protective equipment, CITC’s Fab Lab is 3D-printing masks and other safety items

3D printing an N95-compatible mask.

“People think 3D printing is just for making little trinkets. But the printers can make industry-specific parts, if we want them to,” reasoned Fab Lab Instructor Andrew Regner. “We can make items for the medical profession.”

For the last week, that’s exactly what the 3D printers in CITC’s Fabrication Laboratory have been cranking out: rigid masks that, when fit with the right kind of filter, can be used in place of the N95 respirators medical staff so desperately need right now to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus.

Along with Instructor Decker Goodman, Andrew is making masks for Southcentral Foundation, the Alaska Native Medical Center, and CITC’s Tribal partners. They are also working with local suppliers to help provide pieces for face shields needed by healthcare teams responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Instructor Breanna Wong is heading up a group of staff who are sewing fabric masks for CITC employees still working onsite, as well as the students and teachers served under Fab Lab grants.

A Natural Fit

Andrew Regner shows pieces of an N95 mask made by the Fab Lab’s 3D printers.

As soon as they heard about the worldwide shortage of proper personal protective equipment (PPE), Fab Lab staff knew they could help keep Alaskans safe using the resources they had.

With the lab’s 3D printers, laser cutters, industrial sewing machines, and more at their disposal, said Andrew, “We can attack a problem with multiple tools. The amount of tools and specialty technology we have lets us look at any situation and ask, ‘How do we solve that problem with what we have?’”

The philosophy behind the maker movement is also a natural fit for finding solutions to the PPE shortage.

“The maker community is worldwide, and it shares ideas,” said Andrew, who has been making 3D printed masks based on a design from an Italian 3D printing company. Makers at a fabrication lab in Spain later modified the pattern.

CITC Fab Lab staff further revised the design, creating connector pieces that can make masks more comfortable to wear.

“Instead of someone hoarding the patent to this mask and saying, ‘Only I can produce this mask,’ it’s open source,” explained Andrew. “Other makers take what’s out there, create it, modify it, and share it, which is one of the best things about the entire maker movement. We share everything we do.”

Tackling Real World Problems

Printing a single N95 mask takes about four hours. With three printers churning out roughly three masks a day, plus a fourth printer that’s being used to create prototype pieces, the Fab Lab could conceivably produce about nine masks per day.

Fab Lab instructors like Breanna Wong are also sewing fabric masks.

Meanwhile, Breanna’s fabric masks can be made more quickly. She has plans, too, to post a mask-sewing how-to video to the Fab Lab’s Facebook page, in hopes that students can get involved from home.

“It feels like I’m helping make this uncomfortable time a little more comfortable for our community,” Decker said about mask-making. “But it pales in comparison to actually working with our students in the lab.”

Still, the work staff is doing now in the lab will provide a foundation for future student projects. The Fab Lab has already been awarded a grant to create maker units in Alaska villages. Using most Fab Lab equipment requires wearing PPE, so the first project village students could do is to make their own PPE using what Andrew and Decker have learned.

“A big part of the Fab Lab is to build efficacy for students and make them feel empowered to use the technology,” said Decker. “That’s hard to teach, so as instructors, we regularly bring in our own interests to help show kids how we use the lab to solve problems. Making these masks is a real-life demonstration of how students could use their skills and knowledge to address a challenge.”

Here for the Community

CITC President and CEO wears a mask made by Fab Lab staff.

For safety reasons, the Fab Lab, as well as CITC’s main service building, is closed to most participants. Students continue to engage with the Fab Lab and other CITC education programs through technology like Zoom and social media.

Back at the lab, only two staff are allowed onsite at a time to help prevent the spread of disease.

While staff miss the students they regularly serve, said Andrew, it is heartening to use the Fab Lab as a source of community support.

“We’re always here for our students, which is amazing,” he said. “But often we don’t have a lot of community involvement. This allows us to give back to the community in a way that only the Fab Lab can.”

Learn more about the Fab Lab here. CITC continues to deliver services to new and existing participants remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. To access CITC programs, visit our Operations Update page.

See how our Fab Lab makes masks: