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Economy & Business

Missouri S&T Back To Making Medical Equipment For Rolla Hospital

Eric Schneider sits at a computer wearing a mask prototype and working on revisions for the next version. March 23, 2020. JA 3-23-20
Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
Eric Schneider sits at a computer wearing a mask prototype and working on revisions for the next version.

Updated at 8:10 p.m. March 25 with production continuing

Production of protective face masks at Missouri University of Science & Technology, which had been paused pending FDA approval, has resumed. They won’t be delivered to Phelps Health Medical Center until the FDA approves them. Missouri S&T and the hospital are pleased with the final design and are optimistic it will be approved.

The students, who are continuing to work around the clock, are also producing face shields, which do not require FDA approval.

Updated at 11 a.m. March 25 with production being halted, pending FDA approval

The Office of General Counsel at the University of Missouri System has halted production of protective face masks at Missouri University of Science & Technology until the final design is approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

The university has been told such requests are being fast-tracked by an outside entity, but no estimate on when the approval could come was given.

The university plans to start production immediately upon receiving that approval. In the meantime, the team that assembled at the design center in Rolla is moving its focus to face shields, a piece of personal protective equipment in demand that doesn’t require FDA approval.

Our original story:

ROLLA — On Saturday morning, the head of Phelps Health Medical Center called the chancellor of Missouri University of Science and Technology and asked if the school could make protective masks using 3D printers. 

The answer was yes, and the school quickly assembled a group of students to take on the project. Even though it was spring break and all classes had been moved online, more than 20 students answered the call, and many brought their own 3D printers to help.

“This is what we do all the time, and it’s really exciting to come in and take what is a hobby for most of us and be able to help people and work with friends,” said Eric Schneider, a senior aerospace engineering major from Omaha.

3D printers use a design from a computer file to lay down thin layers of material until an object is formed. In this case, a mask with two removable filters in it. The flat plastic-like mask that comes out of the printer is warmed up and shaped to fit an average person using a mannequin head. Then, elastic straps and a little padding is added to make an airtight seal, it’s tested, and it's ready to go.

“3D printing is really good for stuff like this. We’re developing the design, and we need to print out prototypes. It’s very easy to prototype stuff, because I can have eight to 10 prototypes out in one day, instead of manufacturing things to make the prototypes,” Schneider said.

More than a dozen S&T students brought their own personal 3D printers to the design center to help with the project. JA 03-23-20
Credit Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
More than a dozen S&T students brought their own personal 3D printers to the design center to help with the project.

The team members also got creative in what to use as filters. They tested many combinations of readily available materials and found that makeup pads combined with cut-up pieces of home air filters will prevent moisture and the coronavirus from entering the masks.

“This is really part high-tech and part do-it-yourself,” Schneider said. “But mostly do-it-yourself.”

Missouri S&T engineering students participate in all sorts of design competitions, which have involved a Mars rover, a solar house and a race car. Those skills, combined with classroom work, made it possible for the students to take on this project.

“That sense of urgency, that sense of rallying, thinking about what you need to do, making a plan and then executing that plan in a short period of time is something our students routinely do at these competitions,” said Chris Ramsay, director of the student design center at S&T.

The project also was a boost to students who found their classes moved online and their projects and competitions canceled because of the spread of coronavirus. Max Foley, a senior electrical engineering major from St. Louis, said the work is fun, and he tried to make sure to put it into perspective:

S&T students fit a mask to a mannequin head as the test another prototype JA 03-23-20
Credit Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
S&T students fit a mask to a mannequin head as they test another prototype.

“When you kind of take a step back, every once in a while and think about it, it kind of hits you more. But when you’re in the weeds, when you’re in the process, when you’re in the design, you almost kind of get away from the big picture. You take such a big step in that you forget the impact that you’re having,” Foley said.

By the end of the day Tuesday, just four days after rousting college students on spring break out of bed, the team had completed more than 10 prototypes and were about ready to go into production. This includes masks that can be used in general applications by health care workers and the quarantine-level masks that have to meet higher standards.

Phelps Health is pleased with the progress.

“These facemasks are such an innovative design. Because we can change out filters, we can reuse these masks throughout the COVID-19 crisis,” said Dr. Casey Burton, director of medical research at Phelps Health. “So we do not need to order hundreds thousands of disposable masks; we can rely on a small, maybe two or three thousand set to get us through this crisis.”

The design team estimates they can make 70 to 100 masks a day, which would be enough to meet Phelps Health’s needs in about a month. The final design will be shared with any hospital or university across the country so it can use its own 3D printers to make them. 

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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