GREAT FALLS — Little did Dr. Brenda Canine know that manufacturing supervisor was in her job description. But when the Great Falls College MSU biology faculty member saw a computer file to make surgical masks on 3D printers, she mobilized an army to start production to address the need brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Canine, who started at the college teaching online science labs using robotically controlled equipment before moving into the biology department, reached out to her fellow robotics coaches in the region, friends with 3D printers, the University of Idaho, where she got her undergraduate engineering degree, and, of course, Great Falls College.
Canine put up a Facebook post that included a link to an open-source surgical mask file created by The Billings Clinic, meaning that anyone can access the blueprint for the mask designed by Dr. Dusty Richardson, a neurosurgeon at Billings Clinic, and Billings-area dentist Spencer Zaugg and his son, Colton.
The trio “tapped into their ingenuity to create durable, reusable plastic masks using 3D printer technology,” said a post on Billings Clinic’s website.
It’s a slow process (up to six hours on the college’s library 3-D printer) to make a mask. However, Canine figures if she can get enough people making them, it will slow the need, especially since the masks are not disposable. They can be disinfected after each patient with the filter being traded out every few days.
“We’ll adjust the resolution to see if lower resolution works,” said Ben Truman, the computer support specialist at Weaver Library on Great Falls College’s campus who is printing the masks. “And if it does, it will speed up the printing time.”
Great Falls College’s effort is in the testing phase, and the college has been in contact with Benefis Health System and Great Falls Clinic, which both seem interested in seeing the mask, said Dr. Susan Wolff, CEO/Dean of the college.
Other colleges and universities in Montana and around the world are also printing masks to help the supply crisis.
“It is wonderful to see the ways our faculty, administrators, staff and students step up to help the community,” Wolff said. “We are hopeful the masks will help the local medical community, and we can be a small part of a solution to a very big problem.”
Canine said she feels the need acutely for health care workers to be protected because her sister works at a clinic in Alaska that is running out of masks, so she jumped on it immediately when she saw the open-source file.
“The more we can have ready, the better,” she said, while acknowledging that the college’s efforts alone won’t fill the void. “We will see what happens, but if we can get 100 people making them, it will help some.”
Laura Wight, director of library services at Great Falls College, was one of the first people to jump on Canine’s Facebook post, and she saw that Truman got on it first thing Monday morning.
“We will just keep printing in the library as much as we can,” she said. “It’s better than nothing, and since these are reusable and permanent, they will last.”
Chuck Merja, the coach of highly successful RedNek Robotics team in Sun River that has won world titles, also got his team going on the project when he saw Canine’s post.
“As engineers, we look for problems and try to find solutions,” said the Stanford University graduate. “And we’ve built that into the kids out here. I’m really proud of the kids who are working from home (because they can’t meet together because of the COVID-19 outbreak), but they are still trying to make a difference.”
In addition to the printer Merja is operating at school, he has a couple students who are not only printing the masks at home, but they are looking at ways to modify the design to manufacture the masks faster.
“It’s kind of like that scene in (the movie) Apollo 13, where they layout all of the parts on the table and say, ‘We need to put this square peg, in that round hole,’” Merja said.
Merja’s team also is working on printing face masks that cover the brow, eyes, nose and mouth.
“It’s pretty neat to see the way people come together and look for ways to contribute,” he said.
Have a 3-D printer and want to help? Here’s a link to The Billings Clinic website with the open-source 3-D print file.