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The City Journals

West Jordan residents respond to call to provide first responders with 3-D printed masks

Jun 29, 2020 11:39AM ● By Alison Brimley

Staff from the Salt Lake County library system arrived at the Marriott Library on April 8 to drop off their Lulzbot 3D printers. (Photo courtesy Julia Gappmaier)

By Alison Brimley | [email protected] 

When the surge of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. this spring made clear that our country was woefully underprepared, private companies stepped up to do what they could. Ford and GM auto plants turned from manufacturing cars to churning out ventilators. Distilleries across the country started manufacturing hand sanitizer instead of spirits. 

But on a smaller scale, West Jordan residents donated their means of production—3D printers—to the effort too. 

In March, the Provo Police Department sent out a call asking individuals for donations of 3D printed masks. Peter Dixon of West Jordan thought he could provide a similar service to departments closer to home. He contacted multiple first responders, offering to produce masks with his own 3D printer, and the West Jordan Police Department accepted the offer. Using his personal supply of materials, Dixon made more than 80 masks to donate.

The Salt Lake County Library System did the same, albeit with a slightly larger arsenal of printers to offer. Julia Gappmaier, Adult Services librarian for the Salt Lake County library, spearheaded the project. Gappmaier had heard about other libraries doing similar projects, so a task force of librarians was established to explore ideas. They found out that the Marriott Library at the University of Utah was engaged in a similar project. So, the two libraries pooled their resources to create a lab of 3D printers dedicated to producing personal protective equipment, which includes face shields and PAPR (powered air-purifying respirators). In April, library staff members delivered their arsenal of printers from the library system—all but 3 of which were regularly housed at the West Jordan Library—to the Marriott Library. 

The combined efforts of the libraries have created more than 5,000 items for donation, and Gappmaier estimated the county library printers are producing about 20% of that. Most of these have been sent to University of Utah hospitals, the Huntsman Cancer Institute and VA Hospitals. Others were sent to entities that reached out requesting masks, including a facility in the Four Corners area. 

Together, the libraries have printed many face shields, which provide added protection from exhaled or coughed viruses. But as of June 4, the Marriott Library was still at work on designing tighter-fitting, 3D-printable N95 masks. 

“Because these masks need to have the right fit around the mouth and nose of health care workers and because plastic close to the mouth and nose pose a potential exposure risk as well as small filter holes tax cardiovascular systems of healthcare workers over an extended period of time . . .  this has proven to be a difficult process,” the Marriott Library website says. “N95 masks are not one-size-fits-all.”

To print his protective items, Dixon used a downloaded file that served as a blueprint. The file was originally created by a surgeon and a dentist in Minnesota and publicized by the Provo Police Department when they sought mask donations. Though 3D printers are capable of printing highly intricate objects like working firearms and medical models, the items Dixon personally printed were “not actual medical devices.” Rather, they are plastic holders for medical masks intended to extend their life. 

When he’s not printing protective equipment for donation, Dixon uses his printer for all kinds of personal projects, and he contracts out time for others interested in 3D printing to use it. Most of the equipment he donated to the WJPD was made from materials he had left over from previous projects. 

“They told me they didn’t care about the color, so they got a lot of hot pink and purple [masks],” he said.

The library’s 3D printers are normally also available for public use in “maker spaces.” When pandemics don’t prevent her from doing so, Gappmaier teaches 3D printing classes at the library. A graduate of one of her 30-minute classes can request to print an item for a small fee. Users have created everything from toys to replacement parts for snowblowers using the library’s printers. 

“I’m glad they’re being put to good use,” Gappmaier said of the mask-making effort.