This is a bit of a different topic than we usually cover on this blog, but it is difficult to ignore the current situation regarding the Coronavirus. That said, many of my friends and family are putting in a valiant effort sewing masks to give away to doctors, nurses, family, friends, and even strangers on Facebook--hopefully these masks are a last resort for some previously mentioned but we might as well be prepared for the worst. That had me thinking as a non-sewing individual, how can I contribute? That's when I saw folks 3D printing parts for face shields and these things called "Ear Savers" which help prevent skin irritation behind the ear caused by friction from elastic bands found on common protective masks.
|Figure 1: Ear saver shown from: https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:4255405|
The 3D printer I purchased two years ago is a Comgrow Creality Ender 3 (https://www.amazon.com/Comgrow-Creality-Ender-Aluminum-220x220x250mm/dp/B07BR3F9N6). It is a very capable printer that can print larger items, but it is sort of a kit that you put together (a task not for the faint of heart). At the time it was regularly priced at $230, but I bought it on an Amazon lightning deal for $180 as a STEM project that I could enjoy with my kids. This is just an example of what I use--but the exact printer does not matter as much for this purpose. 3D printers vary widely in price and capability and some printers even arrive pre-built and ready to go. ;-)
3D Printing Filament
This is the material that is melted by the heat from the print nozzle and then reformed into whatever you are printing. Polylactic Acid (commonly called PLA) seems to be most commonly used material and it is derived from renewable resources like corn starch or sugar cane instead of petroleum. Two examples of PLA that I have purchased are shown below.
White PLA large spool - $21
Multicolor PLA 4 smaller spools - $23
|Figure 2: The 3D printer doing its thing!|
3D Print Designs and Modification
If you are new to 3D printing, you may want to start off by using someone else's initial design and then possibly modifying it if even necessary. A great place to get started with freely shared designs is Thingiverse (https://www.thingiverse.com/). This is where I download .STL files and then convert them to .gcode -- which is essentially the three dimensional coordinates in space that the printer uses to know where to place the print nozzle. If you are a multivariable calculus nerd, you should naturally love 3D printing--but it is not needed to enjoy this hobby.
If you need to make some modifications to the design or even create your own from scratch, you can use the included software or there are some really great free resources on-line. My Ender 3 came with Ultimaker Cura software, but I don't really use it other than to convert the .STL files to .gcode. Instead, I use a free site called Tinkercad (https://www.tinkercad.com/) which is made freely available by Autodesk. This software is amazingly powerful for editing and creating your own 3D designs.
|Figure 3: Modifying the design and quantity using Tinkercad|
Monitoring the Print JobThere are many fancy ways to monitor a print job--some of which include customized firmware and Raspberry Pis, but I took a different approach. I purchased a 1080p Wyze camera (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B076H3SRXG) on sale from Amazon for around $20. I then play the video through my echo show ("Alexa, show me the Ender Camera") and watch for the print job to complete. The added bonus of using the Wyze camera is that it has night vision so I can turn the lights off in the garage but still monitor the print with excellent clarity. I can also ask Alexa to set a timer for the print job ("Alexa set a timer for x minutes") so I know roughly when to peel off the completed work and start a new one. A process that only takes a minute--the printer is doing the real work, but it doesn't mind.
|Figure 4: Monitoring the 3D print job using the Wyze camera through the Amazon Echo Show|
The best thing about being able to 3D print something is instant gratification AND the ability to quickly evaluate the efficacy of an idea without a significant spend (time and money). In the case of the ear savers, we evaluated four different designs found on Thingiverse and tried them with the masks that my family is producing. Then we were able to stack rank them based on comfort and then start mass producing the most comfortable design. Of course, we appreciate everyone's contributions to Thingiverse, but some designs are work better for certain projects or are easier to modify when needed.
For example, the graciously provided ear saver designs we evaluated were:
|Figure 5: Evaluating the ear savers and ranking them in terms of comfort from top to bottom (personal preference)|