Lynn Hoffman and Ilyas Colombowala were strangers when they began working on a project to address the shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, caused by the coronavirus pandemic. That was two weeks ago.
Today, the local doctor and businesswoman have already produced dozens of the 3D-printed reusable face masks they co-created and received hundreds of inquiries about the equipment, which is one of many innovations aimed at protecting health care workers treating coronavirus infections.
“I had heard about people trying to come up with 3D-printed solutions to some of the equipment shortages that are going on all over the world,” Colombowala, a cardiac electrophysiologist at Saint Alphonsus, said in a phone interview with the Idaho Statesman. “I thought maybe I would try to just reach out to some folks in the area and see if they could print up a design that I had come across online.”
So he called Intermountain 3D, a Garden City-based 3D printing business that creates “everything from plumbing equipment to high-end art and everything in between,” according to Hoffman, the company’s CEO. She said Colombowala’s call came at the perfect time.
“It was literally at the time I had just seen another design and I was asking my husband, Brian, what he thought! We invited Ilyas to come over right then, and we spent the next hour designing the prototype,” Hoffman said.
IDAHOANS INNOVATE TO ADDRESS CORONAVIRUS
Already, there have been myriad 3D-printing solutions created to address COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. That includes the “Montana mask,” a face mask designed by a Montana ski and snowboard binding manufacturer. Colombowala and Hoffman “heavily modified” the open-source design to create their own mask.
“The 3D printing community has gotten fired up about what we can do to help in this situation,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said this face mask is slightly different from others printed on filament 3D printers, which are commonly used at schools, libraries and homes, and use plastic “thread” to create objects. Intermountain 3D uses a commercial selective laser sintering printer, which can fuse powdered material to create designs.
“The walls of our mask are really thin to make it flexible, and that isn’t something a desktop printer can do,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said flexible masks are more comfortable to wear and create a better seal on the user’s face. Seal is crucial for N95 masks that are in short supply and help filter out tiny particles from the air.
“What we really needed was something that would provide protection from aerosolized droplets that medical personnel are exposed to on a daily basis in the course of their work,” Colombowala said. “That was our goal from the outset.”
The team moved quickly.
“We started looking at this mask (on March 23) and by (the next) afternoon, we had a prototype,” Hoffman said. “By (the next day) we had it tested.”
Colombowala tested the 3D-printed face mask prototype using the same methods used to test the fit of commercial N95 masks. The fit test involves spraying a sweet or bitter-tasting aerosol into a hood that a person is underneath while wearing the mask. If the individual cannot taste the sweet or bitter substance, the mask has a proper seal.
“The user goes through a series of exercises involving breathing, turning the head, moving the head side to side, up and down and then speaking. … We tested our masks under that fit test and found out we did in fact have a good seal,” Colombowala said.
The masks are made of nylon that is approved for biomedical equipment use, according to Intermountain 3D. They also use a disposable filter. Those can be made by cutting a traditional N95 mask in half, which doubles the masks’ usefulness. A Florida anesthesiologist recently discovered that surgical wrap, used during the sterilization process for surgical tools, also works as an N95-comparable filter. That material can also be used in the 3D-printed face masks.
“That’s really exciting because that material is available everywhere in hospitals,” Hoffman said.
Colombowala said he has also tested the masks for comfort.
“I wore it for just about a full work day before we went into production, and I felt like it was wearable and my ability to breathe through the filter material was quite good,” he said. “We placed a soft gasket around the inside that really doesn’t cause too much major fatigue after wearing for several hours.”
IDAHO COMPANY HAS CREATED HUNDREDS OF N95 FACE MASKS, HAD OVERWHELMING FEEDBACK
Intermountain 3D put the face masks into production on March 27 and has already sent some of them out. The company can produce about 200 masks every two days, Hoffman said, and they plan to “just keep cranking them out.”
Hoffman said they’re selling individual masks at cost and fully assembled, including a filter. The masks cost $19.50 apiece and come with instructions on how to sanitize the parts and replace the filter. Hoffman said they’re also working on different pricing for people who want to order the masks in bulk.
In the days since the team unveiled its masks, the response has been overwhelming. Colombowala tweeted photos of the mask on Thursday and has since amassed more than 10,000 likes and 4,000 retweets.
“We’re getting an incredible number of inquiries,” Hoffman said. “Within 30 minutes of this going up on Twitter, I had inquires from New York; New Jersey; Sydney, Australia.”
But there’s a caveat: The mask has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which means some professionals aren’t able to use them.
“The local hospitals are still looking for FDA-approved devices, so this isn’t going to work for them. But we know there are a lot of people who are desperate for anything that could help,” Hoffman said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week advised all Americans to wear masks in situations where they can’t practice safe social distancing. But Hoffman and Colombowala said their priority is providing their 3D-printed masks to health care workers and others with direct, prolonged exposure to coronavirus.
“What I really want to do is to make these products available in Idaho,” Hoffman said. “We’re a small enough organization that we can’t supply all of New York City, but we can supply all of Idaho, so that’s our foremost focus right now.”
To move toward that goal, she’s considering applying for a fast-track authorization through the government. In the meantime, Intermountain 3D and Colombowala are trying to emphasize their mask is a desperate measure for desperate times.
“We need to be cautious about utilizing this solution until it’s absolutely needed,” Colombowala said. “Our hospitals in Idaho have a really good supply of the N95 masks, but I think it’s likely going forward as we deplete that stockpile, we’ll need to move to other solutions like this one.”