How one school district manufactured masks and face shields

Students and teachers from Salamanca City Central School district, an FETC STEM Excellence Award finalist for 2020, are using 3D printing technology to help ease shortages of protective gear for doctors, nurses and first responders.
By: | April 6, 2020

Students and faculty from the Salamanca City Central School District are pooling their resources to create 3D-printed parts for reusable face masks to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The district is located in New York State, the current epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, where doctors, nurses and first responders have reported dire shortages of protective gear.

Amid reports of the shortages, a platoon of 3D printer-users have been deployed in the Salamanca community to manufacture protective gear from home offices and the recently opened STEAM Wing for health workers.

Retired Dell computer engineer, David Springer, who assists with evening operations of the temporarily vacant Warrior STEAM Wing, says, “Each mask costs just over $2 to print with plastic. We have the equipment, the knowledge and the technology. I thought, we can do this.”

Springer contacted Aaron Straus, Salamanca High School STEAM Coordinator, who put in a request to access the STEAM lab.

“We asked the district administration to let a small strike team assemble into the school to run the 3D printers,” says Straus. “We got the OK on Monday, and by Tuesday, our team was printing our first face mask.”

The school is partnering with local agencies to produce and coordinate the distribution of face masks, each with a requisite activity, which will be donated to local health care facilities.

Designing the N95 face masks

The first face masks being 3D printed are N95 face masks with disposable breathing filters.

“The design is pretty straightforward,” says  Salamanca Science teacher, Cheryl Johnson, who converted a spare 10-by 12-foot area of her home into a remote makerspace. “Each N95 mask is made of three parts. The largest piece, the face shield, takes about two hours to print; two smaller pieces take about 25 minutes each.”

Johnson and her son Cole, a Salamanca HS junior, downloaded an open-source file to 3D print an N95 mask from the company, Copper 3D. They ran the file through a program that determined the correct pattern for the school’s 3D printer. The masks have an area where particle filters can be replaced.

Meanwhile, Boundless Connections, a technology resource and training company headquartered in downtown Olean, put out a pro bono RFP to school districts with 3D printer capability to produce additional facemasks for area hospitals and health centers.

Salamanca was excited to help the relief effort. “Tell us what we can do,” responded Salamanca Assistant Superintendent, Mark Beehler, assistant superintendent in the district, which was named a finalist in the 2020 FETC STEM Excellence Awards program. “We are all in.”

The company worked with infectious disease experts of the Cattaraugus County COVID response task force to design the mask to specifically protect the whole face for medical professionals. Many new versions do not meet the rigorous Food and Drug Administration’s N95 designation.

“Unlike N95, which primarily covers the nasal and mouth cavities, our proprietary BC19 face shield sits two inches from the face of the user,” says Boundless Connections Director, Christina Lopez. Working in tandem with other devices, it can be used to cover the entire face.

“The face masks must meet a rigorous vetting process for quality control,” says Salamanca Junior, Connor Klute. “It’s good to help people and know you are making a difference,” adds eighth grader Mitchel Schnaufer.

School officials agree both designs extend the life cycle of a mask that otherwise is a one-time-use item, addressing the industry shortage of masks.

Related: 3D files for making N95 masks

Using technology for good

“Five years ago, when we first began our STEAM initiative, we couldn’t have imagined our district would be in a position to use this technology to save lives,” says Superintendent Robert Breidenstein. “Now we are printing 3D face masks for our front-line healthcare providers and first responders.”

Although Salamanca students won’t be able to directly use the 3D printer lab during this period of distance learning, teachers are excited to talk about how the district is using the technology for good—and how students can use the engineering skills they learn in the real world.

“The 3D printers have changed the way I teach, the manner in which students learn, the type of projects created in my technology classes,” says high school technology teacher Stephen Kew.

Also read: Student 3D-prints face shields for coronavirus fight

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s of a scope that we don’t understand and most of us have no direct control over,” said Straus, “but in it, is an opportunity to teach students about the role of engineering as a benefit to society and likewise find innovative ways to still deliver quality STEAM instruction remotely, over the web. We will continue to rework our virtual management system so that students can send their STL design files directly to our lab or to the instructor’s home for 3D printing.

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