COVID-19 May 1, 2020

Doing What’s Most Important and Doing It Now

We’ve all heard how medical masks are in short supply as healthcare workers address the COVID-19 pandemic; a motivated group at The University of Texas at Austin is doing something about it…in 3D

Reviewed by: Scott Evans, PhD
Written by: Gene Lazuta

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It is (tentatively) called the Contour3D®, Custom-fit Reusable Medical Mask; and it is being developed in Austin, Texas by a team of engineers, medical professionals, software and other information technology specialists, 3D printing experts, and more, who all came together to address a single problem: making sure that front-line healthcare workers have the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to do their jobs. Versions of surgical masks are being sewn by concerned volunteers in their homes and many local organizations are making face shields of various kinds. But other equipment, like the carefully sealed N-95 face mask, which utilizes a polypropylene fabric that filters 95% of particles from the air a person breathes, is more difficult to replicate. The Contour3D is targeting this level of protection and will soon be manufactured on 3D printers across the country for purchase by local medical providers. Made of a non-porous material that can be sterilized in an autoclave, the hard-shell mask can be used over and over again and features a screw-cap end for swapping out used filter material for fresh inserts. It is a promising solution to an extremely important problem, and it all came together in about five weeks.

“When we first starting talking about what practical contribution we could make to help mitigate the impact of the virus on patients and healthcare workers, our first thought was to make a very simple mask,” says Scott Evans, PhD, a Director of Texas Inventionworks, a program in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. “First, we found some designs for what people were calling ‘masks’ online, and we printed a few. But very quickly it became clear that they all had their own limitations. Also, the solution we were imagining needed to be durable. It needed to last. So we knew it would need to be made of cleanable materials. And we were going to need a way to get them made and distributed to the clinicians who would be using them, which is why we needed an industrial 3D printing partner, like EOS, if we were really going to make a difference. We also understood that, in the end, people were going to be relying on what we designed for their personal safety, so we had to get it right. That’s a lot to consider, and it’s why we’re so fortunate to be a part of UT Austin.”

Aaron Miri, Chief Information Officer at the Dell Medical School and one of the project’s most enthusiastic members, agrees, adding, “Within a very short time we had people coming forward to basically volunteer their time and expertise to do something that we all knew, if we got it right, could be used to quickly address a real problem. We’re on the fifth or sixth prototype right now, and I’ve lost count of the prototype versions our clinicians at UT Health Austin have tested.”

Many people are using desktop 3D printers to make face shields or simple masks that may or may not be effectively cleaned and reused. This project is using an industrial, or additive, manufacturing technology called Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), invented at The University of Texas in 1987.

And while the protective quality of the mask’s shell and filter is obviously critically important, there is another, perhaps less obvious, feature of the Contour3D that matters a lot to clinicians. It matters so much, it is how the mask got its name.

“As a physician, I can tell that, first and foremost, a protective mask has to maintain a good seal on your skin,” says Amy Young, MD, UT Health Austin’s Chief Medical Officer and a practicing clinician. “But comfort is important too, since clinicians will be wearing these masks for hours at a time. We’ve all seen images of doctors and nurses coming off a 12-hour shift with an angry red outline around their nose and mouth. So making a mask that fits tight, but can be worn comfortably all day or all night, that’s a real challenge.”

Which is where the development team’s software partners come in. Here’s how the system they created works: First, a clinician completes a facial scan using one of a number of readily available smartphone apps and then submits the scan file through a custom cloud portal developed by a software industry partner. An algorithm then selects the mask template that best matches the clinician’s face shape and customizes the mask shell to the contour of the facial scan. Then, the clinician can purchase their own personalized mask from the nearest participating additive manufacturing company, ideally in under two days.

“I’ve been involved with 3D printing and product development for more than 20 years,” concludes Dr. Evans, “but I have never seen anything like this combination of really smart, really creative people, from design engineers and student volunteers to Carlos Mery, an internationally recognized pediatric heart surgeon, who all come together spontaneously to make something so useful, so fast, while maintaining the kind of quality standards you need for anything health care-related. It was really special. We’ve had over a month of long days and even longer nights. We made progress, and we had to rethink things when designs didn’t work the way we hoped. It reminded me of what it’s like to be part of a new technology company’s initial start-up period. It can feel like a controlled explosion, where everyone is asking, at every moment, ‘Okay, what’s the most important thing we can do now?’

“What’s most the important thing we can do right now?” Dr. Evans repeats, adding, “That’s the question. You ask it, you answer it, and then, you do it.”

The Contour 3D Custom-fit Reusable Medical Mask is currently being released on a limited basis, and the team has started mapping out improved filters and more comfortable designs with a growing coalition of collaborating organizations. For more information about UT Health Austin’s COVID-19 response, including telehealth appointment options, please visit UT Health Austin Telehealth. For more information about Texas Engineering’s COVID-19 updates and resources, please visit the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.