Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Battle Covid-19 Using 3D Printing

By Tony Lee

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
Prior to printing anything of actual importance my 3D printer's main duty was to print Play-Doh molds and toys for my kids. It has now been reassigned to a greater purpose and we are using this article to share some tips and tricks with others that may also want to contribute to battling Covid-19 using 3D printing. You can get up and running with the basics for a couple hundred dollars or less--the rest is convenience and efficiency.


3D Printer
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

Getting Ideas
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 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.

Simple Modifications
If you need to make some modifications to the design or even create your own from scratch, you can use the included slicer software or there are some really great free resources on-line. My Ender 3 came with Ultimaker Cura slicer 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 .STL files from Thingiverse or other sites, but it can also be used to create your own 3D designs. As a final step, I still slice the .STL to .gcode using the included Ultimaker Cura software, but you could also try using the freely available ideaMaker slider from https://www.raise3d.com/download/.

Figure 3:  Modifying the design and quantity using Tinkercad

Monitoring the Print Job

There 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

Design Evaluation

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)
This quick evaluation allowed us select the best option and now we include ear savers with every mask we deliver. When ear saver production out paces the masks, we send those out where there is a need.


At some point, we may post follow up articles that cover more of the intricacies of 3D printing, but we wanted to share this information with others who might also be looking for ways to contribute to the battle against Covid-19. We hope you enjoyed the article and encourage respectful and helpful feedback in the comment section below. This is by no means the only way to 3D print, but it should help some get started 3D printing to combat Covid-19. It is quite an amazing experience to see or hear about a person's reaction when you freely give them something you created to protect their health--sometimes they cry. There may be no way to describe this feeling in words, but it certainly makes the time and effort worth every second and every penny. Please stay safe and happy 3D printing.

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