By Lawton Skaling
The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how fragile the supply chain of essential Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as face masks, is during an emergency. According to Dr. Tedros Adhanom, DirectorGeneral of the World Health Organization, “demand [for face masks] is up to 100 times higher than normal, and prices are up to 20 times higher”. To reduce the spread of the virus, and prevent PPE shortages from occurring, a more widely available mask design is necessary. To address this issue, custom sizing and fabrication with 3D printers should be considered. 3D printing has been used currently to produce face masks, however does not take full advantage of the technology. Face mask designs are not customizable, and users are constrained to specific shapes. Furthermore, they lack the ability to modify based on filter material thickness, filter material area, glasses, and nose size.
3D printed face masks have two benefits over traditional face masks. First, production is easily scalable. As can be seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, the production of N-95 masks was not scalable enough to meet the demand. 3D printing solves this, however, because the printers are so widely available, and production is relatively quick. While a traditional filter is still required, it requires much less material than a traditional mask, and can be adapted to various filter types. The other benefit is the customizability. Unlike traditional manufacturing techniques, 3D printing allows modifications to designs without modifications to the production method (such as creating a new mold in injection molding). This is useful when developing a product that requires extreme versatility to fit different face shapes. To utilize this functionality, face mapping software would be used in a way that is both inexpensive, and easily accessible: mobile phones.
By using face mapping data such as Apple’s FaceID, a user could map their face and get a custom fabricated face mask in a matter of hours. FaceID and similar technology works by using an array of sensors on the top of a mobile phone to create a model of the user’s face. Accuracy is essential to ensure secure data, and thus is adequate to create a realistic model of the user’s face. Furthermore, it is widely available to all without requiring large infrastructure investments or time to scale.
To use this technology, a user would simply download an app onto a compatible device, and begin the scanning process in a similar way to FaceID setup. Once complete, the user could modify the mask to include features like filter area, filter thickness, band type, contours for glasses, and mask position. Once complete, a file would be generated, and volunteers would sign up to print and distribute the masks to hospitals and homes. This ease of production would dramatically increase face mask availability, reduce costs, and potentially give the public access to the same industry-leading filter materials used by medical professionals.
About the author:
Lawton Skaling is a senior in high school, and was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. He has been active in STEM since a very young age, currently leading Alaska’s Nerds of the North statewide robotics team. He loves finding applications for new and emerging technology like 3D printing. He plans to study mechanical or aerospace engineering in college, and then work in cutting edge technology fields like commercial space exploration or brain interface devices.