• External Contributor

Bitterroot FabLab Designs Reusable Mask

The Bitterroot FabLab has designed a mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus that is reusable and rapid to produce.

The next step is certification.

The Bitterroot FabLab designed a 3D printed mask mold for use in a vacuum-former to produce N95 masks, designed to be disinfected in a dishwasher, with a silicone seal between face and mask and has replaceable respirator cartridges.

Bitterroot College English and Writing Studies Instructor Matthew Kaler said the project started because of the feeling of helplessness during the high social distancing time of the pandemic.

“You’re watching the news and seeing what is going on in urban areas and you’re doing your due diligence of staying home but that felt inadequate,” Kaler said.

He and his friend philanthropist Jason Greer considered opportunities at the FabLab. Bitterroot College’s Fabrication Laboratory, funded by the Rob and Terry Ryan Foundation, encourages entrepreneurial endeavors and creativity by providing tools, materials and time accessible to the community.

The Bitterroot FabLab formed a team for research and development and Greer became the first investor.

Greer, a Montana-born and raised entrepreneur who co-founded a software company in Seattle, said he was worried about the shortages of N95 masks and wanted to do something. “Through the lockdown we started taking about working with the FabLab to get masks made,” Greer said. “There was a feeling of being helpless and unable to help the people on the front lines.”

He challenged the Bitterroot FabLab group to be smart and seek better answers while social distancing.

“I challenged them ‘how can we make things better in a different way?’” Greer said. “Early on we said we don’t want to put someone in danger. If people are better off with cloth on their face then they should have cloth on their face. They did testing, it is not federally approved but this is a lot better than a handkerchief. That was the spirit of doing it, it was a local response. They approached it really well.” Kaler said that despite the urgency of the situation the team took their time to feel confident of the safety of the mask.

“[We wanted to develop] something a healthcare worker could wear safely,” Kaler said. Bitterroot FabLab Director John Springer and assistant Kurt Foster combined design skills, research excellence and determination to develop the prototype.

Springer said he liked some of the 3D printed designs created by other companies but saw their slow production process and researched a different method.

Foster said that he was initially reluctant to be part of the mask project because of the responsibility.

“It is a piece of personal protective equipment and it has to be done right,” he said. “But when we started seeing health care workers wearing bandannas, I started designing.”

Foster brought 20-years of computer-aided design (CAD) experience to the project and said the team worked through dozens of revisions to make the masks light and comfortable.

“It has to be very light weight because people are going to wear it all day so it has to weigh almost nothing,” he said. “And it has to work, it has to seal, or what’s the point. We wanted it to be semi-reusable to get a lot of uses out of so it has to be something you can sterilize.”

Another goal was to be able to reproduce the masks quickly and with what local community colleges may have on hand.

On June 8 the Bitterroot FabLab team approved their prototype.

“That’s our first one where everything feels good, has the removable cartridges that you can replace and the production time is low because it is vacuum formed, you just heat a flat sheet of plastic, pull it around a form and laser cut out the pieces you need a little quicker,” Springer said. “The process is faster than 3D, we’re hoping that each mask only needs five minutes to be completed.”

Personnel hours for research and design were more than the FabLab originally budgeted for and is in need of $2,500 in additional funds to pay for those costs.

The next step for the Bitterroot FabLab is to get their masks certified.

“We want to be sure the seal is as good as it seems and if we get more funding we’d like to see if we can get the NIOSH approval so it could become an N95 certified mask,” Springer said.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is a Federal agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related disease and injury.

Springer said NIOSH ranks and certifies masks and N95 means that it will stop 95% of .3 micron particles.

“That puts you in a more official category so people know what the standard is for what they are buying,” Springer said. “I think there’s an FDA process we can put it through also.” Foster said there is still a long way to go with certifications and sizing.

“We’re not done but it’s going in a good direction and we’re past the most difficult parts,” Foster said.

The certification will take time but Springer said the masks could fill a need sooner if needed.

“We’re trying to make it so that if a hospital is short on PPE (personal protective equipment), like if this fall is bad with a high resurgence of cases, we would be a back-up,” Springer said.

“If people really need something we may push our mask out there so people have access to them because using our mask is better than using a bandanna which nurses were forced to do.”

Springer said the Bitterroot FabLab is using materials that has received an N87 rating or a N93 rating.

“We may use more filtering,” he said. “Ours seems to be quality but we want to be official and be sure.”

Kaler said hospitals in Missoula, New Jersey and New York have expressed interest in the Bitterroot FabLab mask.

“Our hope is to start producing these so we can get them to places that they are needed,” Kaler said. “It’s exciting to be able to contribute in a small way to helping out the people who are the real heroic figures here, the front line workers who have literally put their lives at risk to help people during this time.”

Bitterroot College Director Victoria Clark said the project will touch lives.

“Seeing Bitterroot FabLab Director John Springer and his colleague Kurt Foster step up to the plate and engage their considerable engineering and innovative skill sets for the public good in this era of COVID-19 is incredibly inspirational,” Clark said. “Their dedication and determination to move this project to successful completion despite setbacks and obstacles is truly remarkable. I am thankful we have individuals like John and Kurt in our community — individuals who are making a real difference.”