This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to your local newspaper.

GOODLAND — By mid-morning Thursday, Northwest Kansas Technical College Instructor Michael Zimmerman had made 30 plastic masks destined for The University of Kansas Medical Center Wichita Campus.

Working from the Engineering Technology Department at Northwest Tech in Goodland, Zimmerman was monitoring the lab’s three 3D printers, which were cranking out hard plastic masks designed to protect workers caring for COVID-19 patients.

Working from a pattern he found online, Zimmerman said the masks are a reusable alternative to the soft disposable cotton masks that are in short supply from huge pandemic demand.

“The printers are going to be busy for the next four weeks,” said Zimmerman, noting that KU Med Wichita has ordered 100 of the masks. He has also received orders for 30 from Thomas County law enforcement, 50 from Rawlins County, 50 from Cheyenne County and 100 from Sherman County.

An idea that has been slowly catching on around the country, 3D printing of the reusable masks is a stop-gap measure until major manufacturers, like 3M, can ramp up large-scale production, Zimmerman said.

While medical supplies are being distributed from the U.S. government’s National Strategic Stockpile, the concern is that they are being funneled largely to urban areas, where the sheer number of patients is far greater.

“Small health care providers in rural mid-America are going to be lower on the list for supplies,” Zimmerman said. “This works for them until they can get the commercially made products from the big companies.”

One hard plastic mask can fill in for six disposable ones, he said. The way it works, a cotton disposable mask is cut into six pieces, then each single piece of hospital-grade filtration material is installed into one plastic mask.

The filter is thrown away after each use, while the plastic mask is wiped clean with disinfectant, then outfitted with a new throw-away filter.

Jason Showalter, Northwest Tech’s dean of students, received a call a few days ago from a KU Med Wichita physician. The physician asked if the college’s 3D printers could be deployed to make masks using patterns available online. The first pattern Zimmerman tried didn’t have a tight fit on the face, he said.

“Health care workers need a mask that has a tight feel on the face, where the air they are breathing in is only coming in through the filter,” Zimmerman said. “If it’s loose, then some of the air comes in the side, bypassing the filter.”

A second pattern worked well, and the printers were off and running, making three different sizes, large, medium and medium, by scaling the pattern 100%, 90% and 85%, Zimmerman said.

A rubber weather stripping seal, from any hardware store, adds comfort and also tightens the seal, he said.

The printers are self-sufficient, requiring only a little oversight.

“I set up the printers at the very beginning, making sure the spacing is right on the build plate,” he said. “Once I hit ‘start’ on the printer, I can walk away. I’m only checking in on the printers every 12 hours.”

With all three printers running, Zimmerman can make 18 masks every 24 hours.

Zimmerman charges $2 a mask, or $3 for those with the rubber seal.

“We’re not in it to make money, we’re just trying to help,” he said. “We’re just charging enough to cover the material costs. And the cost of the raw material itself is not that high.”