UVU making 3D-printed masks for coronavirus first responders

Provo • When first responders in Utah County needed protective masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah Valley University was one of the organizations that answered the call.

Sid Smith is an associate professor in the Architecture and Engineering Design department at UVU. He has joined with BYU, the Nebo School District and others in providing masks for first responders using a 3D printer and a blueprint designed by Dusty Richardson, a doctor in Montana.

“3D printing is part of our department here at UVU,” Smith told The Daily Herald. “We’ve been using 3D printers for about 12 years, when we bought our first one.”

Smith explained that 3D printing is known as “additive manufacturing” because materials are added to create a part or item needed. Subtractive manufacturing is used when someone takes a block of wood or steel and cuts materials away to create an item.

Students have used the 3D printer over the years for classroom projects, but Smith said there are many applications.

“We’ve made valves, teeth for the dental industry and projects for legal services, where we create designs to represent accident models,” he said.

The process is fairly simple: Smith downloads a file with the design for the masks. The file then processes using software in the lab. He arranges the needed material on a pallet and sends it to the 3D printer.

Smith said he delivered 96 masks to the Provo Police Department on Friday. He has another 20 ready to go and 10 printing on Monday. In 16 hours, seven masks are made on one printer and three on another for a total of 10 each cycle.

“Other people have heard about what we’re doing and want to help,” Smith said. “I have a friend from Colorado who is a value-added reseller for our printer. He volunteered his machine and he printed out 40 or 50 to send to us. I’ve also gotten calls from others who have 3D printers and they have volunteered their time and plastics. They are printing them out as we speak.”

On Monday afternoon, Provo Police dispatch said 900 masks had been received since the call went out on Friday. There are approximately 550 officers serving Utah County residents and numerous other first responders in need of masks.

3D printing has evolved over the years. Where once it was used mostly for prototyping a product to see if it was feasible, plastics have become stronger and better so the printer can be used to manufacture the products themselves.

“They can use them in the medical industry,” Smith said. “They can be placed inside the body without causing problems. They can be used in aerospace. There are plastics strong enough to fly unmanned aircraft.”

Smith said one added bonus with the project is that it can help reinvigorate programs at junior highs and high schools for 3D printing instruction.

“It’s nice for us to be able to have those types of facilities for our students to come and learn and grow,” he said. “There are lots of jobs available in the industry. I think it can help us realize how important it is that we teach students in junior high and high school the importance of design and what the future holds for them.”