Demand for N95 masks in the health care field has grown increasingly by the day amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Area hospitals have been seeking masks on a daily basis and one local teenager is helping design them from home.
Due to a shortage of masks and the disposable nature of their usage, medical institutions like the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) have resorted to creative manufacturing measures. One method of mass production is using 3D printing technology.
A student at Charleston County School District’s (CCSD) Academic Magnet High School has been requested to help MUSC with this initiative. Sophomore Jeremiah Benton has a passion for engineering and personally owns a 3D printer with which he can design N95 masks from the comfort of his home.
Benton grew up in Mount Pleasant where he attended Whitesides Elementary and Laing Middle School. Four years ago at Laing, he developed an affinity for 3D design. Two years ago, he purchased his own.
He said 3D printers are not commonly owned for personal use, but are relatively inexpensive considering the type of work they can perform. Nowadays, a high-quality printer can be bought for $250 on average, depending on the type.
Benton usually used his 3D printer for school-related projects that required specific engineering principles. That changed last week when he received an email from MUSC.
The email contained a 33-page document which included an assembly guide with steps for 3D printing. MUSC had detailed instructions outlining how to make 3D masks, but Benton would still need a list of materials for print preparation.
He planned to order the parts online, such as the S.A.F.E cartridge pieces, HEPA filter, nylon strapping and a foam gasket. He also needed tools like a hot glue gun, super glue, a hobby knife, scissors and a ruler. But the timing for shipping wasn’t promising, so he decided to use another resource.
Benton didn’t have other classmates involved in the project that he could rely on because he was operating alone with the only 3D printer. So he reached out to Academic Magnet principal Catherine Spencer, who met him in the parking lot of the school and supplied him with the materials from the school’s engineering department.
When Benton began the printing process on Tuesday of last week, he experienced some failures early on and had to discard two masks. By Wednesday, he had successfully printed two ventilators and was working on a third.
It takes Benton seven hours to create the ventilator and the rest of the mask about 8 hours, so approximately 15 hours in total. He said that his engineering teacher Jessica Aydlette has got it down to nine hours total.
By the end of the weekend Benton had built four masks. In a full week, he projects he can produce close to 15 masks.
Benton can design the masks in all different colors and plastic filaments. He prefers raptor green, which is Academic Magnet’s school color.
“I need to adjust some settings so it’s a little bit faster, but right now I’m worried about quality over quantity,” Benton said.
Once the individual parts of the mask are ready for printing, Benton uploads all of the file designs into the software Cura where it creates the three dimensional figure. He said the intricacies beyond this point are difficult to describe in layman’s terms.
Benton was able to convey how pleased he was that MUSC presented him this opportunity to help. Likewise, he noted how MUSC is helping him out with community service hours for school.
“It is a big honor. It’s pretty cool to help out MUSC and I know some of their doctors personally so I have some sort of connection to them,” Benton said.
Benton also shares a familial connection to MUSC. His mother, Nicole Herring, is a doctor who previously performed work there. She thanked him personally for his contribution to her fellow health care workers.
“(The masks) are very important for anyone who has (COVID-19) to make sure they don’t spread it,” Benton said. “Which is even more important to doctors because they plenty of patients every day that actually do have it.”
Benton hasn’t been given a timeline on the production of the masks but says he’ll continue printing for as long as MUSC requests. Although Benton hasn’t spoken directly with MUSC, he’s certain they’ll be thankful when he drops off the masks he printed himself.
“For them to come to high schools instead of professionals, they put a lot of faith in normal users of 3D printers to produce some very high quality masks. It’s a lot of responsibility,” Benton said.
This was a chance for Benton to put his skills toward something far greater than a homework project than just academic enrichment. This extracurricular assignment doesn’t have a grade on it but rather lives on the line. Every mask he makes could save the life of a doctor or patient that’s at stake.
For Benton, the task presented the perfect scenario where engineering and medicine come together to help one another. A beautiful art form created for the benefit of humankind during a time of crisis like the coronavirus.
“It just shows how all aspects of the design for the medical field ties into science and engineering,” Benton said. “It puts a lot of people to work from different fields working on the same goal.”