UA professors 3D print masks, face shields

Vincent Edwards, an advanced technology instructor/technician, attaches the face shield to a headband Friday in the Wood Shop at the University of Arkansas' Sculpture Studio in Fayetteville. The headbands are produced with the use of a 3D printer and are donated to hospital workers and first-responders. Go to for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Coronavirus turned the University of Arkansas campus into a ghost town this spring, so some faculty turned their attention to helping during the pandemic.

Vincent Edwards, an instructor in the School of Art, goes to campus for about an hour each day to use 3D printers to make personal protective equipment.

He has access to three printers, which can each make a stack of four face shields once in about 22 hours, meaning he can produce 12 face shields a day. He's made about 150 so far and estimates each shield costs about $1.50 to make. He's using transparency material the School of Art had on hand because students haven't had in-person classes for months. Students normally use the printers for ceramics and sculpture work, he said.

"For me, the big exciting takeaway of this is this global network of independent designers and makers -- the effort, the scale of it, the speed of it. It's exciting to witness," he said.

Edwards said he read an article about someone 3D printing equipment in Europe and thought he'd try it. He noted the cost of 3D printers has dropped enough they're widespread. The ability to 3D print personal protective equipment during a pandemic may not have happened a decade ago because 3D printers weren't as accessible, he said.

He gives the shields to the Northwest Arkansas Innovation Hub's Arkansas Maker Task Force, which coordinates the distribution of donated personal protective equipment to local health care workers.

Edwards also has been working with engineering professors Raj Rao, Wenchao Zhou and Zhenghui Sha who are making masks with their 3D printers.

Rao said the idea came through a conversation with a therapist who works at a nursing home about the need for personal protective equipment. The masks are to be donated to local nursing homes, he said.

The masks aren't N95 respirators, some of the most sophisticated masks worn by medical professionals, and are better suited for nursing homes than hospitals, Zhou said.

The professors have access to five 3D printers and have successfully made about 55 masks, Zhou said. Another 10 masks came out defective.

It takes about two hours for a printer to create the main part, but much of the work of putting all components of the mask together is done manually, Zhou said. He's using one of the printers and making masks from his home.

The masks are mostly made of biodegradable plastic and rubber and cost under $2 each to make, he said.

Zhou said the professors saw a need because nursing home residents are at such high risk if they contract covid-19.

The professors have looked at the capability to create ventilators, but that would be much more complicated than masks, and the demand for masks is greater in Northwest Arkansas than ventilators, he said.

Fourteen covid-19 patients in the state were on a ventilator as of Thursday evening, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

NW News on 05/26/2020