Published May 14, 2020
A University at Buffalo-led research team is developing plans to 3D print safe, effective and reusable N95-like respirators.
The team includes UB faculty members, local manufacturers and 3D-printing enthusiasts.
It was started as a way to address the immediate need for personal protective equipment due to supply chain issues involving N95 masks — with one goal being to provide a device that can be an additional tool in the toolbox for fighting the virus that causes COVID-19.
“This is a coordinated effort that cuts across UB’s research enterprise and involves Buffalo’s entrepreneurial digital manufacturers,” says project coordinator Albert H. Titus, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, a joint program of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
“Very quickly, a team of scientists, engineers and doctors coalesced, with each member offering their support and expertise to address what’s become a severe need to fight the spread of COVID-19,” he says.
There are plenty of online tutorials for using 3D printing to create N95-like respirators.
Yet to work properly, and reduce the spread of COVID-19, these improvised respirators must meet stringent requirements.
For example, a respirator’s effectiveness is “highly dependent upon proper fit and use,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Otherwise, virus-laden respiratory droplets can sneak past tiny gaps between the respirator and the user’s face.
Most 3D-printed respirators are made of hard plastic that’s sturdy but lacks the sealing capability of traditional respirators, which are flexible and designed to form a protective barrier around the face.
To address the limitation, the team is using a more malleable plastic that requires more expertise to print.
The team also designed plans for at least five different respirator sizes that take into consideration typical female and male facial features. This approach is believed to be unique, as many 3D-printed respirators are based on a one-size-fits-all approach.
The respirator would be reusable because they could be sanitized after each use.
Each respirator has an opening to insert a filter cut from people-safe MERV 15 air filters (common to hospitals, clean room and other uses). The team is also exploring using human-safe HEPA filters in a turn-and-click mechanism, which may improve the respirator’s breathability.
Another idea is to custom print respirators for a user’s face. The user’s face would be scanned using a 3D face scanner, or they could submit phone or tablet-camera generated 3D models of their face, which could be used as blueprints for a customized respirator.
“These are just a few of the ideas we’re working on,” Titus says. “With the need more urgent than ever, this team is really pushing itself to come up with effective yet practical designs.”
The team began to assemble in earnest in March at the Jacobs School.
Noting the dwindling supplies of respirators, researchers inquired about UB’s 3D-printing capabilities. The conversation spread to several departments in the Jacobs School, as well as the School of Public Health and Health Professions.
It eventually led to a small group of UB researchers who — working with templates shared by the Billings Clinic in Montana — quickly 3D-printed a few prototype respirators.
Encouraged by the results, the informal team began to contact fellow researchers in the biomedical engineering department.
Team members also reached out to leaders in Buffalo’s startup community, especially leaders working in additive manufacturing.
Within days, the informal group became a working group directed by Titus. Subgroups formed to tackle areas such as design of the respirator, testing perspectives and production logistics.
Peter L. Elkin, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics; and clinical informatics fellowship trainees Gabriel Anaya, MD; Arlen B. Brickman, MD; Jinwei Hu, MD; and Brianne E. Mackenzie, MD; are among the Jacobs School researchers working on the project.
The effort has also widened to include the School of Dental Medicine; faculty from the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences in the Jacobs School; the Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART) Community of Excellence; e-NABLE, an online global community of “digital humanitarian” volunteers that works on 3D-printed prosthetics and other devices; as well as private partners like UBMD Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine.