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Higher ed faculty use 3D printers for local needs

Submitted Photo The ear guards for use with face masks are being produced by New Mexico Military Institute faculty and will be provided for free to health care workers in the area.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

With local higher education institutions closed to on-campus classes and usual student activity through the remainder of the spring semester because of the COVID-19 crisis, faculty at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell and New Mexico Military Institute are using their 3D printing equipment to meet some local needs.

NMMI faculty are creating ear guards to give to first responders and health care professionals. Those are used with their face masks to keep the strings or bands from rubbing the skin or causing sores around the ears.

Meanwhile, ENMU-R faculty are experimenting with a smaller, internal project to manufacture non-regulation face masks for some of their essential employees.

Lt. Col. John Surgett, a physics and engineering faculty member at NMMI, said he learned about the ear guards from alumna Mariah Daniels.

A NMMI junior college graduate now studying engineering at Texas Tech, Daniels had seen a social media post about a Boy Scout who had created the 3D design for the ear guards. After word was circulated online, the teen agreed to share the design openly, urging others to print the ear guards if they were able.

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Surgett said Daniels received permission to use Texas Tech printers for that purpose, and soon after he cleared it with state officials and NMMI administrators. Approval came around April 8 and production began about that time.

NMMI has seven 3D printers, Surgett said, and the machines are able to produce 50 ear guards every three hours.

“There are faculty who have volunteered to go in at various times,” he said, “because we have to manually take the prints off, clean the surface and start the next batch.”

In addition to Surgett, the faculty members now working on the project are Lt. Col. Nancy Castillo, a math professor; Lt. Col. Roger Castillo, a math and science teacher; and Col. Elena Viltchinskaia, a chemistry professor.

Surgett said they plan to produce as many as needed to donate to local first responders and to area health care professionals at hospitals, nursing homes and clinics during the current crisis.

“I just thought, why not? We have the equipment. We might as well be doing something good with it,” Surgett said.

The ear guards will be delivered sanitized to those who want them, but Surgett said they aren’t sure at this time exactly what the demand will be and whether users will consider them single-use or reusable items.

The printers at NMMI use a flexible, corn-based biodegradable plastic. They can make about 500 ear guards with one spool containing about two pounds of the plastic material.

“It is coming out to be relatively inexpensive,” he said.

At ENMU-R, faculty are in a trial phase using the 3D printers in the iCenter to make plastic face masks.

Assistant Vice President of Health Education Laurie Jensen said the masks are meant for security officers and maintenance staff who have to be on campus and continue to work during the campus hiatus.

Jensen said that these are not the Federal Drug Administration-approved N95 masks recommended for health care workers. She said the printers at the university have the capability to do N95 masks, but that obtaining the needed filters is near impossible at this time.

“We do have some masks now for our essential employees,” she said. “However, we are doing this as a proactive measure to see what we can do here.”

She said that, because the iCenter printers are a “bit older,” they can make only one mask in about five hours. Only a few printers are available.

The prototypes that have been created are being evaluated to determine how well they work or what adjustments might need to be made.

She added that faculty are also investigating the possibility of creating cotton masks as well for ENMU-R employees.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.


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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.