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Michigan school districts, firms churn out masks with 3-D printers

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

At least 30 school districts in Michigan have joined the fight against the spread of COVID-19 by activating idled 3-D printers to make masks and face shields for medical workers in need of critical protective gear.

Districts have joined forces with more than 200 private owners of 3-D printers across Michigan as well as public libraries with printers to become an army that's producing badly-needed supplies for front-line hospitals and care centers.

Melissa Rabideau, owner and founder of TinkrLAB at Meridian Mall in Okemos, wears a 3-D printed mask while collecting donations of similar masks that she helped crowdsource to give to first responders dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

Launched last week, the collaborative effort of 260 printers has produced at least 500 masks and 150 face shields as of Wednesday, said Melissa Rabideau, owner and founder of tinkrLAB, a Lansing-based children's learning center that has organized the collection and distribution of the gear to area hospitals and medical centers.

Rabideau said faced with the closure of her own business, which has multiple 3-D printers on site, she switched her focus to be part of the solution to the pandemic sweeping the state.

"I can use my skills, contacts and printers to do something. I reached out to East Lansing Public Schools. They wanted to make masks. I said let's join forces on this," Rabideau said.

After she started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the filament needed for the 3-D printers, schools districts and private citizens joined the effort. A roll of filament is $35. One roll prints 20 masks, depending on design. The crowdfunding effort has raised more than $16,000.

"They all wanted to be part of this. It's grown really quickly. I call it the 'Print Force,'" Rabideau said. "It's truly individuals coming together one person at a time."

Melissa Rabideau, owner and founder of TinkrLAB at Meridian Mall in Okemos, demonstrates the 3-D printed mask that she helped crowdsource to give to first responders dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

The masks themselves are 5 inches by 4 inches, come in a variety of colors, and take four to six hours to make on one 3-D printer. The face shields are 14 inches by 10 inches and take one hour to print, Rabideau said.

The masks are not certified medical gear, she said. They are made using a common 3-D print file found online, which she took to hospitals and health care providers for approval.

"Our entire print force is printing one style of mask and face shield. These are being used as backup. If there are certified medical masks, they should use them," Rabideau said. "We have a lot of home health care facilities who may not have access to anything. They are going in there with no mask or a bandana."

Bill Peters, project manager at TinkrLAB at Meridian Mall in Okemos, puts on a face shield created with a laser cutter to be given to first responders dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

The masks have elastic straps and a small hole in the center for a filter, which must be added by the medical facility, Rabideau said. The face shields have a strap added to them and are ready to placed over existing masks.

Mask production by the schools and others comes amid a shortage so severe that the Joint Commission, which accredits U.S. hospitals, said Tuesday that if facilities can’t provide proper masks, health workers are allowed to bring their own from home, the Associated Press reported.

Hospitals across Michigan have sought donated masks, gowns and supplies as their workers treat patients with the virus and worry about becoming infected.

School officials say they are thrilled to join the effort and activate district-owned printers that have sat idle since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed all K-12 schools March 12.

Christian Palasty, director of technology and media services for East Lansing Public Schools, said the school district has 13 3-D printers operating around the clock in one of its school buildings to make masks and components for face shields. So far, the district has made about 150 masks and 150 face shield brackets.

Boxes of 3D printed masks are donated at Meridian Mall in Okemos, Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

"We all came to the conclusion that we have these devices sitting there. They are not doing anything right now and they can do a lot," Palasty said.

In the last few days, the East Lansing district has begun printing face shields and connecting bands, which are faster to print than the masks, Palasty said.

Okemos Superintendent John Hood said his district got involved with making masks last week after administrators and teachers saw a tweet from East Lansing schools Superintendent Dori Leyko about her district's work.

That led Okemos High School assistant principal Andrea Hallead to email the district's tech teachers, Dean Buggia, Julie and Mark Tomczak, and Paul Hinze to gauge the district's capabilities to join the effort, Hood said.

"Which was met with a resounding yes, they wanted to join in. By (last) Thursday afternoon, Okemos had our printers going to support the effort," Hood said.

Okemos is operating 11 printers, producing 166 masks so far. In the Okemos district, staff are operating the printers at home, rather than in school buildings, to balance work with family needs.

Okemos Public Schools teacher Paul Hinze of Kinawa 5/6 School utilizes a district 3-D printer to make medical masks.

"We have truly been the worker bees here with at least two school systems and tinkrLAB coming together to meet the needs. It models education in the best way possible for schools and community," Hood said.

"We know there is great need. We haven't planned on stopping. We plan to continue until the need is met," Hood said.

Rabideau, who said she is working 18 hours a day, said the effort has given people meaning during a difficult time.

"People want something to latch on to and be apart of. This is giving people a purpose right now and making a difference," she said.

jchambers@detroitnews.com