As COVID-19 continues to change the world, medical and healthcare workers have become the heroes we need during this time. Patients and families of patients who were exposed to the virus are not the only ones deeply affected. Healthcare workers are wearing layers upon layers of gear to ensure that they are protecting themselves, patients, and others when providing care. This includes face masks that when worn for extended periods of time can dig into the skin, head, and ears, often causing marks, discomfort, and sometimes even bruising. After hearing about this issue, with a little inspiration from a Boy Scout he read about, Ian Southwell knew something had to be done.
Ian is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the FabLab at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. He serves as the educating technician providing training, tutoring, and workshops on the various technologies and techniques available in the FabLab. Technologies include the laser and vinyl cutters, vacuform, CNC, and in this case, the SLA 3D Printers. His idea for 3D printed ear guards to accompany medical masks came from a combination of peers, social media groups in the 3D space, and a Boy Scout Quinn Callander, who crafted a model for the guards.
The ear guards are 3D printed in about 20 minutes on an SLA 3D Printer that Ian has in his house. They are made from Polylactic Acid (most commonly known as PLA) plastic, a polymer made from renewable resources. The PLA plastic ear guards are printed with grooved “security straps” to ensure that masks aren’t rubbing on the face of medical workers all day. “The materials come from a variety of places,” Ian expressed, “some of the materials are from my own stock, some come from donations from friends and family, some of it comes from RMCAD’s inventory.” Each ear guard has multiple straps so they can be adjusted to the best fit for comfort. Printers are constantly running to ensure continuous production to make as many pieces as possible.
The hope is that these ear guards relieve some of the physical stress of wearing masks that make direct contact with the ears and face. Southwell stated, “the specialists have enough stress in their work environment, if we can help relieve a little of that stress, then we should help.” After printing is complete, the guards are being dropped off in bulk at RMCAD, and then passed along to someone who distributes them to where they are needed and being requested. This could include hospitals, doctors’ offices, nursing homes, and anywhere that healthcare workers would benefit from this piece.
Knowing how to support a cause with so much uncertainty can often be challenging. Ian expressed to us, “this sort of experience rallies around the Unknown. So many times we walk into a learning environment because we want to know more. What better way to learn than to blaze new trails and improve as we go?” To get involved in supporting a cause like this, research is critical. Ian recommended getting in touch with sites like Matter Hackers, Make 4 Covid, and doing a simple Google search of places in need of help. Not everyone has the accessibility of a 3D printer in their home, but there is always the option to purchase products and donate to a peer who has that access. There are plenty of ways to get involved and contribute in a unique way that makes sense for the needs of your local community.
Now more than ever, it’s important to give back and contribute in any way possible. Whether that’s 3D printing ear guards at home, sewing face masks to donate, or volunteering to distribute products to those in need. “It’s always important to give. Even if it means stretching your time and finances. If we don’t give then we can’t expect to be able to receive,” Ian said. The resilience of the community and bright ideas of artists and designers so closely tied to it are going to be what helps everyone push through this challenging time.