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Designers are 3D printing masks at home for LA hospital workers

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In less than one week, hundreds of volunteers have printed more than 1,500 face masks and shields

Alvin Huang, who spearheaded the volunteer effort, at home in Los Angeles with his printer.
Courtesy of Alvin Huang

Architect Scott Mitchell’s 3D printer has been running nonstop since he and his daughter assembled it two weeks ago.

Mitchell, who teaches courses on fabrication at the USC School of Architecture, is churning out pieces of protective equipment for hospital workers daily on the printer in his Highland Park home.

“I’m not a doctor,” Mitchell says, but “I’m good at building things.”

Mitchell says that his colleague at USC, Alvin Huang, kickstarted the push to print personal protective equipment, or PPE, using the 3D printers that are already located in the homes of many of the school’s faculty, alumni, and students—all of whom would normally be using the printers to generate 3D models of their architecture projects.

Huang, founder of Synthesis Design and Architecture, says that the group now includes 207 volunteers from architectural fields operating 200 3D printers throughout Southern California. In less than one week, the network has produced more than 1,150 “pseudo” N95 masks and 575 face shields.

Those products are delivered to Keck Medicine of USC, where they are sanitized and assembled by the hospital’s team, then stored.

The masks and shields that the printers make are not medical-grade equipment, Huang emphasizes. They are intended to be a penultimate defense for medical professionals—to be used after their existing supply dries up and in the event that further supplies of medical-grade equipment can’t be secured.

“The real hope is that everything we are doing right now is in vain—that nobody ever has to use our equipment, ever,” Huang says.

The 3D printed masks and shields would be used as a step up from doctors, nurses, and other medical staff using bandanas and socks to protect themselves as they work. Shortages of masks and other necessary equipment for medical workers have already become a problem in other parts of the country, from New York to Pennsylvania.

Huang says the situation is scary and upsetting.

“I’m not supposed to be making medical supplies for a pandemic,” he says, noting that this undertaking is his fourth job (and his fifth or sixth if you count being a parent and a husband).

“Our states, our local hospitals should not be fighting each other for supplies, but the reality is that we are in this situation,” Huang says.

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office is acting as a liaison between the USC-based group and other similar grassroots efforts throughout the city as part of a larger initiative to tap into any and all resources that the city can use to build up more supplies that will be needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not everyone who’s contributing to the effort has a 3D printer or access to one. Some of the students collect the completed parts of the masks and deliver them to Keck, to reduce the number of trips people take and contact they make with others. Students also close the gaps between those who have extra materials for the printing and those who need materials.

Huang says recently he woke up to find three roles of the “filament” needed to print the PPE at his door “because a student had come by in the middle of the night and dropped them off on my step.”

Architect Debra Gerod, a partner at Gruen Associates and the president of the American Institute of Architects’ California Council, doesn’t have a 3D printer, but sees her contribution as boosting the signal of Huang and Mitchell’s work, looping in more architects who might be able to help, either by printing or donating filament.

“It’s hard to think of another similar moment when architects could have such a direct impact on protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public,” Gerod said.

The AIA’s Los Angeles chapter is also spreading the word. Over the weekend, it sent an email to members, letting them know about the effort and asking them to help however they could, whether that meant switching on their printer or sharing materials.

“We are just at the beginning in Los Angeles, and we have to prepare for the worst,” says Carlo Caccavale, the chapter’s executive director.

That’s what Huang is doing.

During the day, he sets up projects on the printer that need to be pulled off every few hours. Then, toward the end of the day, he sets up print files that take nine hours to finish, so he has time to sleep.

The printer is running constantly. The sound, he says, is “like white noise in my house.”