3D Printing on the Frontlines: How One AMT Employee 3D Printed Her Mask

AMT Principal Developer, DevOps Alka Parandekar recently 3D printed masks at home for herself and her husband. It took about 3 3/4 hours to print each mask and 45 minutes to print the filter frame. To make the masks functional, she needed a few additional items that cannot be easily 3D printed, including mesh for breathing and elastic bands. 

“The complexity of 3D printing a face mask compared to any other object, such as a more angular object, for example, is negligible. I printed the two parts successfully the very first time and scaled down my mask by 8% so it could fit on my face snugly,” said Alka. 

Alka downloaded the digital replica file in this case, an STL file from Make The Masks, which has mask design files free for public use. Although as stated on the company website the mask is not intended to replace standard protective equipment such as N-95 masks or surgical masks, nor is it approved by the FDA or NIOSH, the level of protection is customizable based on the material used for the filter. It can also be sanitized and reused, and the filter mesh can be replaced easily. 

After downloading the STL file containing the raw coordinates of the two parts’ contours and shape, she sent it over her home’s Wi-Fi network to her 3D printer. Before printing, she could preview the 3D model on her computer screen and use the scaling feature to adjust the X, Y, and Z dimensions. The model comes with configuration parameters that can also be tweaked such as layer height, infill, and temperature. The final step before printing was to process or “slice” the STL file and convert the model into a series of thin layers to produce a G-code file. The G-code file contains instructions that tells the printer when to move, how to move, and what path to follow. 

The mask is made from PLA (polylactic acid), a bio-degradable thermoplastic polymer filament that comes in the form of wire on a spool and is available on Amazon and the FlashForge site. It is fed into the printer through the extruder, where the filament melts to form a very thin and tightly regulated stream of molten plastic that is then added layer by layer onto the printing tray to create the 3D mask.

Alka’s interest in additive manufacturing began during IMTS 2012 when she saw Local Motors exhibit Rally Fighter car parts printed on a Maker Bot 3D Printer. About the same time, AMT acquired three BFB Touch 3D printers, one of which was placed in the lobby for employees and visitors to watch the printing process. When AMT raffled the printers later that year, she was one of the lucky winners and was excited to bring it home.

After taking a short 3D printing course at TechShop in Arlington, Va., she eventually purchased a smaller printer on Amazon from a Chinese-manufactured brand called FlashForge for about $350. Today, she mostly uses it to entertain her friends by printing alphabet letters, replacement Lego pieces, toy boats, a model rotary encoder, and flexi-cats – including one that glows in the dark!