Custom Fit

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., one of the most immediate needs that arose was filling a shortage of PPE for health care workers. So, inside the Cockrell School’s Texas Inventionworks studio, engineers immediately galvanized into action to create customized 3D-printed masks.

Follow their Process ↓

Scott Evans, director of the Cockrell School’s Texas Inventionworks, and project partner and alumnus Nick Fuselier (B.S. ME 2019) were approached by leaders from UT Health Austin in early March to use technology to solve an emerging issue: As availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) dwindled, could 3D printers quickly create masks to protect health care workers against COVID-19?

Evans and his team found existing 3D-printed mask options lacking in quality, so they used a simple design and a smartphone app that lets anyone capture a 3D scan of their face to create customized masks.

In a matter of days, the researchers partnered with manufacturing company EOS to produce custom-contoured masks on a larger scale. Just a few weeks later, they created the first ones for clinicians to test.

As the immediate need for PPE became less dire and as they learned more about the virus, it became clear we were settling in for a longer-than-expected return to normal. So, the researchers began to look at the bigger picture.

The goals for the project shifted from immediacy to performance — create the best masks on the market, even better than the N95s regularly used by health care workers.

For the Generation 2 mask, they decided to decouple the mask from the filter system. This allowed them to focus on improving the fit of the 3D-printed, customized masks and work with partners with expertise in filters like W.L. Gore & Associates to improve filtration.

Iterations along the way included different mask and filter system designs and printing with a variety of materials to determine the impact on comfort and cost.

This filter has an N99 level of filtration, meaning it filters more than 99% of airborne particles, is reusable and easy to sterilize. The folded structure makes it easy to breath through.

As a cost-effective alternative, the team also created a system that uses disposable filters, which match N95 levels of performance.

Filters fit into a custom holder that twist-locks into the mask base, using the same attachment as the W.L. Gore filters.

This gives hospitals and health care workers two potential solutions.

The team’s latest development is to add a soft silicone material to the mask base to improve fit, especially for long-time wear on the face. These have been tested by UT Health Austin professionals who continue to provide critical feedback.

Blake Denison, a pediatric perfusionist in the Department of Surgery and Perioperative Care at Dell Medical School, has tested more than 10 different versions of the 3D-printed masks, and he says they beat N95s across the board.

“When considering comfort, fit, durability, breathability and re-use, it is completely reasonable to assume that this mask would be preferable in every sense to an off-the-shelf version,” he said.