By now, it's no secret that the country is undersupplied for the current pandemic, perhaps best evidenced by the lack of medical-grade masks available for the people who need them the most. Every day, new photos circulate on social media of doctors wearing handkerchiefs to cover their faces and trash bags to cover their bodies because they have nothing else. To help provide some layer of protection, many people are jumping in to create DIY masks in whatever way they can.
A few months ago, Joe Dornetta, a construction worker by trade, bought a 3D printer for fun, just to tinker around with. But when COVID-19 began spreading across Pennsylvania, he discovered a new use for it. A doctor friend sent Dornetta an open-source file from Copper 3D, a Chilean company that designs 3D printed medical devices. The doctor asked him to print some masks, ahead of the impending shortage.
"I made a handful of them and as I'm dialing in our printers and figuring it out I'm thinking, ‘If I've got one doctor asking me for these, there has to be, who knows how many,’" says Dornetta. "It blew my mind that someone that high up in the medical industry in a place like Pittsburgh was concerned about a mask shortage, so I knew immediately there was a problem."
Over the past couple weeks, Dornetta, along with his wife Kaitlin, who works as an oral surgical assistant, have set up a quasi-lab in their home and have been printing as many masks and face shields as they can. They've printed and delivered free masks to doctors, nurses, firefighters, and other people working on the front lines of the pandemic who don't have sufficient protection.
The Dornettas are currently running their operation under the name Infinite Labs, though they're considering a name change so as not to mislabel themselves as an actual lab. But with Kaitlin's background in sanitizing medical equipment, they've tried to mimic a lab environment as much as possible. Materials go through three stages of cleaning before entering their production room and three more before they go out. Joe, like many DIY mask makers that have cropped up in the past few weeks, knows the masks he's printing are not in any way equal to N95 masks or other medical-grade masks. But as the saying goes, anything is better than nothing.
"When we see these frontline workers, they literally look like they've been in the trenches for days,” says Joe. “I mean, they look so beat up and tired and they still have the determination to keep going. Anything I can do so that they don't have to think about 'I gotta go home and sew up a mask.'"
The masks arrive flat, and are designed to be heated with a hairdryer and formed to the wearer's face (a video tutorial is posted on the Infinite Labs Facebook page). The face shield is meant to be worn overtop, covering the entire face for an added layer of protection.
While the Dornettas make and distribute the masks for free, they have set up donations on their Facebook page to help with the costs of printers and materials. They've already received a couple thousand dollars in donations, including a 3D printer donated by the Community College of Allegheny County mathematics department.
Joe plans to keep making masks as long as the pandemic is spreading through Pittsburgh but he doesn't plan to stop when the spread weakens locally. He wants to keep the operation going to provide protective gear globally as the pandemic spreads elsewhere. Using 3D printing to make masks and face shields hasn't necessarily caught on in the same way as sewing masks with fabric, partly because 3D printers are less accessible. But Joe believes there's a lot of untapped potential for using them to make emergency masks.
"I truly believe in a city like Pittsburgh, with how technologically and medically advanced we are, this is the perfect place to make this happen."