3D print companies develop special mask gear for SRP SanTan Sun News

3D print companies develop special mask gear for SRP

July 21st, 2020 STSN Staff
3D print companies develop special mask gear for SRP
Business
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SANTAN SUN NEWS STAFF

Two 3D printing companies helped Salt River Project get more than 200 specially designed custom-fit face mask gear for critical personnel who work in the field.

Athena 3D Manufacturing, was formed last year by inventor-entrepreneur Memo Romero, and played a critical role in the development of the masks, SRP said.

Romero, an Ahwatukee resident and a mechanical engineering graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, has 28 years experience in semiconductors, power systems, thermal engineering and product development and over 20 U.S. patents. He has designed products for NASA, the International Space Station and a number of industrial and auto companies.

He founded Athena 3D with a vision of how 3D printing could impact product design and partnered with HP to give engineers and designers access to bulk parts in less time.

Athena worked with SRP and Bellus 3D, a California company that has developed the Mask Fitter, a head frame that more firmly secures a mask to a person’s face.

“The men and women working on power lines, in distribution operations centers, interacting with customers and ensuring water delivery, must have access to masks that achieve a near-perfect seal around each person’s nose and mouth,” SRP spokeswoman Erica Sturwold said.

SRP’s early mask models were full-respirator style, compatible with many different filtration materials and included a silicon face-seal solution.

“The full-size masks with silicone seal kept out particulate matter, but were ultimately time consuming to produce and did not always seal across all face shapes and sizes,” Sturwold said.

The utility also was running out of N95 masks for service crews and did not want to further deplete Arizona healthcare organization’s supply of those masks, which are certified by the Food and Drug Administration as capable of blocking 95 percent of all particles.

“Our Health Services team has been conducting COVID-19 tests and health screens for employees and we were nervous when we noticed our supply of N95 masks was getting low,” said Jodie Broderick, manager of health services at SRP. “We’ve tested a lot of mask solutions the Transportation Services team came up with and the 3D-printed solution with the Mask Fitter attachment is clearly the best. Even for women or people with smaller faces, these pass the fit test.”

SRP had a surplus of KN95 masks, which are manufactured in China and are just as effective in blocking out air particles, according to Smart Air, a certified B Corporation that “promotes cost-effective, data-backed air filters as a solution to indoor particulate air pollution,” according to Smart Air’s website.

B Corporations are companies certified as producing products and services that balance profit with legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. There are more than 2,500 around the world.

Athena helped SRP in several ways.

The company helped the utility test its fitted mask concepts and also recommended that it check out Bellus’ app, which scans a person’s face for measurements of their facial contours. Those measurements are then used by Bellus to produce a head cradle that holds mask more closely to the face and allows a person to swap out used masks without worrying the replacement won’t fit properly.

“A lot of research and development has been done in my house,” said Chad Barrett, strategic operations manager for transportation services at SRP. “We have worked on four different iterations of the mask concept since coronavirus set in. Each iteration required improved design changes, printing prototypes as well as smoke testing on different face shapes and sizes to make sure the masks were keeping unwanted particles out.”

While the Food and Drug Administration will only certify the N95 mask as capable of capturing 95 percent of all air particles, Smart Air said there’s little difference between the American-made mask and its Chinese counterpart.

“Among the minor differences, only KN95 masks are required to pass fit tests while N95 masks have slightly stronger breathability standards,” it says on its website, adding that its tests show the NH95 mask is equally effective at capturing air particles.

Athena printed 900 straps that secure the Bellus Mask Fitter to a person’s face.

Sturwold said SRP’s joint project with Athena and Bellus is “an impressive effort that other local companies can replicate to address the N95 shortage,”

“The combination of the Mask Fitters, head cradles, brackets and removable filters make this solution ideal for SRP employees who have been working onsite and in the field throughout the COVID-19, she said. “They tested 3D designs made publicly available on the National Institute of Health 3D print exchange website and made hybrid solutions from there.”

“Working closely with SRP’s safety services team, the goal was to develop a mask that works as well as an N95 mask and is practical for SRP employees to wear while working in all various job functions across the organization,” she added.

Now in full production, the SRP Transportation Services team is getting ready to deliver its first shipment of 200 Mask Fitters to SRP employees.

Members of SRP’s Health Services team were some of the first to wear mask prototypes to determine which mask could endure smoke tests.

“They were the first to embrace the Mask Fitters for mass use,” Sturwold said.

John Hughes, supervisor of field and shop operations at SRP, said employees who tested the Mask Fitters and Athena’s straps were pleased with the project’s accomplishment.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from our teams who have tested the masks and we know these are much more durable and easier to work with than N95’s,” he said. “They don’t slide around your face, and they are much easier to breathe through.

“Our crews in the field like to be able to keep the mask around their neck when alone in their vehicles, and position it back onto their face when they are coming in contact with residential or commercial customers,” he added.

Sturwold said that while  the initial shipments of the gear will go first to “critical service” personnel, “the goal is to deploy them to more of SRP’s employees.”

She added that SRP may be the first utility company in the country to deploy 3D printed Mask Fitters for a large number of employees.

“The beauty of these Mask Fitters is their simplicity, and they can be worn an unlimited number of times if well cared for,” said Barrett. “They can be wiped down and filters can be swapped out whenever damaged or soiled. We’re happy to give a comfortable, long-lasting solution to SRP employees during a time when additional safety precautions are necessary.”

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