UH Hilo produces prototype medical equipment with 3D printing to help community prepare for COVID-19

Members of the local community have come together—people from public and private industry, and UH Hilo—to create 3D printing prototypes of reusable masks and face shields, just in case personal protective equipment might be needed during the coronavirus health crisis.

By Susan Enright.

Jon Goebel
Jon Goebel

As of today, 44 people on Hawaiʻi Island have been diagnosed with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and none have required hospitalization. Consequently, local hospitals are not experiencing shortages of personal protective equipment as they are in hard hit areas of the world. But a master printer and an information technology specialist at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo are producing prototype reusable face masks and shields with 3D printing, just in case they are needed.

“It’s preparedness,” says Jon Goebel, a professor of art who is producing masks on the 3D printer he uses for teaching and creating art and contributing to scientific research projects. “Otherwise if we get inundated [with coronavirus patients], we haven’t done the experimenting to see if it’s possible to make protective equipment.”

A man fits a face shield onto another's face.
From left, UH Hilo information technologist Francis Cristobal fits a reusable face shield on UH Mānoa pre-engineering student Michael Dodge. The visor part of the shield was made by 3D printing in a Department of Computer Science lab at UH Hilo. Courtesy photo.

Reusable face masks

Goebel is making the masks from 3-D designs found on the internet. He’s working with local pediatric hospitalist Craig Burger, MD, to fine tune the design.

Craig Burger profile photo, with stethoscope around neck.
Craig Burger

“While we have not had a shortage of certified supplies, we started the idea in the event supplies become limited, I think living on the islands lends itself to the idea of self-independence,” says Burger, a UH Hilo alumnus who graduated in 1999 with a bachelor of science in chemistry.

“The fit test is super important,” says Goebel, a master printer and the director of UH Hilo’s printmaking program. “Our design works great, and we now have a prototype that works well. The [polylactic acid or PLA] plastic can be softened with warm water and then molded to fit.”

The reusable face masks allow for a piece of a filter, like a section of a N95 respirator, to be slipped into the box-shaped slot at the front and then discarded after use. The plastic shell is then sterilized and ready for next use. This allows for a single N95 mask to be stretched into four masks. Goebel says they could make nine reusable masks a day if needed.

A plastic shell for a face mask.
3D reusable mask prototype. A piece of a filter, like a section of a N95 respirator, is slipped into the box-shaped slot at the front and then discarded after use. The plastic shell is then sterilized and ready for next use. This allows for a single N95 mask to be stretched into four masks. Courtesy photo from Jon Goebel.

An interesting component to the project is that Goebel is currently on sabbatical this year, traveling in the continental United States and abroad, and when the pandemic hit the U.S, he just happened to be in Indiana visiting his mother between work destinations. He decided to shelter in place with her as long as necessary for both to be safe. So how does he run the 3D printer back at UH Hilo? Remotely.

“The system was developed to print from anywhere in the world,” says Goebel. He simply uses his phone (or tablet or computer), remotely logs onto the computer at his UH Hilo office, accesses the program to run the printer, and with the help of Professor of Art Michael Marshall, chair of the Department of Art who mans the printer at their offices, Goebel sets up the proper printing parameters and launches the print.

Francis Cristobal
Francis Cristobal

Reusable face shields

Elsewhere on campus, at the Department of Computer Science, another team is 3D printing do-it-yourself reusable face shields.

“Hilo Medical Center still has supplies but we want to be ready in case they run out,” says Francis Cristobal, an information technology specialist recently named a Quintessential University Citizen by the Chancellor’s Executive Council. “We are also looking into donating the face shields to the front liners like the fire department, post office, and UH Hilo customer-facing staff.”

Visor lit up with purple light, shaped by overhead 3-D printer.
3D printer creates reusable face shield visor in computer science lab at UH Hilo. Courtesy photo.

To make the reusable face shields, Cristobal and his team tested a couple of models available online and picked the best features to design their own.

“We wanted it to use the least amount of 3D print filament possible while keeping its durability,” he explains. “We want it to be printed in one piece, clearance at the front to minimize fogging, easy to sanitize and to use with easy accessible office supplies. In this case, a flat, or any, elastic, [and] PVC clear cover. The idea of the face shield is to use it with a face mask.”

How to make a reusable face shield

1. 3D print the visor frame:

A plastic head visor frame.

2. Three whole punch PVC 8 1/2″ x 11″ clear cover:

A three hole punch with clear plastic inserted to make holes.

3. Cut elastic to size (the developers actually recommended a flat elastic, but this is what they have in stock at this time):

A piece of red elastic cord laid on a table in a circle with overlapping ends.

4. Affix the clear cover to the visor by pushing the hole to the mounting points. Attach the center hole first then both sides. It should be tight. Attach the elastic.

3D printed frame with a face shield attached


Just recently a nonprofit group on Hawaiʻi Island led by Noel Morin has reached out to the computer science team to coordinate efforts.

“We have teamed up with them as well,” says Cristobal. The group includes Rodrigo Romo, director of Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES), Dane Dupont, a UH Hilo alumnus from Hawaii Tracker, and Christian Wong from the Hawaii Science and Technology Museum. The group is coordinating the efforts in 3D printing to creating personal protective equipment, and offering support for the filament and materials through a grant.

“It’s exciting that the community has come together so purposefully—business, private, the university,” says Burger, who is also consulting for the 3-D team in the computer science department. “It’s incredible that through creative use of innovative technology and talented individuals, such as Jon and Francis, that even a small island in the middle of the pacific can meaningfully participate in solutions to the current crisis. ”

Also working in the computer lab with Cristobal is student Michael Dodge, a UH Hilo alumnus who hails from Pahoa on Hawaiʻi Island and is now a pre-engineering student at UH Mānoa.

“Michael has been extremely helpful with his knowledge in using Autodesk Inventor,” says Cristobal. “This is a sophisticated engineering software used to digitally design aircraft, engines, automobile parts and many more for simulation and prototyping. Mike has completed his first two years of college at UH Hilo and has been a student worker at the computer science department in the past two years. He currently works for UH System Cyber-Infrastructure as one of their student technical assistants.”

The 3D printers at UH Hilo were provided by UH System Academy of Creative Media as a part of grant to stimulate and support visualization research and digital media initiatives on Hawaiʻi Island.

Cristobal notes that the team is offering the 3D file of the face shield frame for free, but also says it is a do-it-yourself prototype, so “use at your own risk.” To request a copy of the .STL file email uhhcs@hawaii.edu. “They can either download the file print themselves and use the instructions,” he explains. “Or we give them the frame and they get the materials to make their own.”

Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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