How 3D Printers Are Helping Supply Wyoming Hospitals During The Pandemic

Apr 3, 2020

At the start of the week, Tyler Kerr was one of the few people in the office at the University of Wyoming's Student Innovation Center. He and his team had a busy weekend 3D printing 115 face masks for Wyoming.

"We did a full 48 hours of non-stop printing. We're coming in at like 2:00 a.m. to start the printers again. My staff took a well-deserved day off to sort of rest and recharge their batteries," he said.

Kerr coordinates the makerspace at UW, a place where anyone can come and learn to use emerging technology like laser cutters and 3D printers.

Kerr and other makers around the state are combining their brain power, equipment and supplies to produce personal protective equipment or PPE -like surgical masks, face shields and gowns- for healthcare providers. The Centers for Disease Control says there are major shortages of PPE like n95 respirator masks because of COVID-19. The CDC is telling health care workers to take steps to make sure their supplies can last longer.

Kerr and his team are working with a group called the Wyoming Technology Coronavirus Coalition, which began only a couple of weeks ago.

Eric Trowbridge, CEO of the Array School of Design and Technology in Cheyenne, said he saw people who've been laid off during the pandemic and others express they wanted to be able to help health care workers.

"We can find the coders around Wyoming, the hardware engineers, software engineers, and maybe we can get them excited and volunteer their time to work on meaningful projects that can hopefully help folks in Wyoming," Trowbridge said. "So we were able to bring together so many different folks, not only just in technology and health care, but in public relations and media. And then the average person was like, 'I can cook and I can sew,' and I'm just like, 'Come on in! Come on in!"

Trowbridge created a Slack group, which is an online chat platform where each chatroom can have different focuses. The Coronavirus Coalition has space for job postings, volunteers, medical supply drives, pitching ideas, and places for hospitals or groups to request what they need. It currently has more than 200 active members.

"This community has really exceeded, I feel, every expectation on what I initially had an idea for," he said.

The Wyoming Technology Coronavirus Coalition isn't the only group working on solving supply issues in the state. There are lots of makers from Riverton and Powell, and more individuals contributing what they can.

Spencer Kuzara is vice president of Phorge Makerspace in Sheridan. He's leading a similar online community, where they share ways to design and manufacture PPE.

"The main priority is to provide the hospital with emergency back-up supplies should they need it and of course provide them with the information regarding these materials so they can make their best informed decision on when or when not to use these materials or products," Kuzara said.

The 3D printed masks aren't meant to protect frontline providers the way an n95 respirator can. They are meant to extend the life of the respirator by covering them with a protective mask. But that could change if hospitals get desperate.

Reed Aivazian, safety manager at the Wyoming Medical Center, said there are challenges that come with these new products.

"The 3D printers can do a lot of cool things, but from the ones we've seen and from what I've been finding on them, they don't fit a face really well. The 3D printed ones are a lot more rigid...We're not writing them off completely because we might get to that point, but we're not liking them as a primary method for right now," he said.

Tim Thornell, the president and CEO of Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, said the hospital has about 31,000 surgical or face masks in stock. But the hospital goes through about 24,000 each month.

"We've put in orders, as is every hospital around the country, and we get a fraction of what we ask for," he said.

Officials at Cheyenne Regional said that's why it's great to have local makers so they can troubleshoot issues as they arise, and then get a big batch of masks printed by a bigger operation like the UW Makerspace.

Right now, most makers are donating their time and resources, though the hospitals are trying to help out financially as best they can.

"We're concerned that supplies will start to dwindle. We're also concerned about how we can fund this in the long-term," Kerr with the UW Makerspace said. "But right now, we're funded entirely-out of-pocket."

But Kerr added that they didn't want to burden the hospitals and charge them for the PPE.

Though the Wyoming Technology Coronavirus Coalition, which is not an official business entity, is able to accept donations through the Array Foundation that comes from Array Inc, Trowbridge's company.

Kuzara with Phorge Makerspace in Sheridan said he hopes these efforts show how beneficial these makerspaces can be to communities.

"I don't think it's very well understood what its purpose is or what the advantage would be to have essentially a small volume manufacturing shop in your community...The fluidity and adaptability of what we do is amazing to me and I hope other people will actually see that as well," he said.

The hope is the relationships between the hospitals and makers can last long past the pandemic.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at cwheel11@uwyo.edu.