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Kents Store duo tackles facemask shortage with 3-D printing technology

By Scott German

heyne windham
Austin Heyne (left) and Kevin Windham. Photo by Scott German.

For every story of medical personnel exhausted and in need during the coronavirus pandemic, there’s a story of community members stepping forward – with gloves, hand sanitizer, and other much-needed supplies to help with those necessities.

Here’s a story about my neighbors, two Fluvanna County men, who are taking a high-tech approach to provide both Martha Jefferson Hospital and the University of Virginia Medical Center healthcare personnel with pressure relief face-mask straps.

Maybe too high-tech for many, but for my neighbors, Austin Heyne and Kevin Windham, it is a means to help the communities in which they live and work.

How simple? As easy as printing approximately 4,000 straps to distribute between both Charlottesville hospitals.

Printing, as in 3D printing. Living between Heyne and Windham in our Kents Store neighborhood is like residing next door to the “Big-Bang Theory” gang. Even better, I can actually hang out with these guys on occasion.

Windham is a certified intraoperative neurophysiologist. That’s the official title of the individual who reads electrical activity from nerves at risk during brain, spinal, vascular, et cetera, surgeries. Windham spent time in the operating room at both local hospitals and is currently a software engineer.

Heyne is a senior software engineer, and both he and Windham are employed with Commonwealth Computer Research Institute in Charlottesville.

CCRi provides analytical development services to a wide range of clients from the private sector to the federal government.

The skinny: these two engineers crunch numbers and data and then for good measure crunch them again to provide solutions in appropriate software for their clients to utilize.

Windham said the decision to try to help the local medical professionals was a result of the pair always having the desire to design and build things. Combined with their interest in all things technical, a 3D-printed relief strap was the right project for these two at the right time.

Kind of like Etch-A-Sketch going on a date with Lincoln Logs.

The concept behind the relief strap is basic: to provide ear strain relief to medical staff that have been told to continuously wear masks throughout their shift, which causes the straps to rub the back of the ears.

This simple little strap on the back of the head pulls the straps off the ears to provide instant relief from that strain.

It might be hard to grasp that something this basic could provide so much relief. In the fight against this virus, even the smallest of ideas can yield big results.

Windham said the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) was concerning on a personal level.

“I felt like my former coworkers were being put at risk, so we looked around to see if anyone was organizing anything to help,” Windham said.

The two looked around some “maker communities” to search for any organized efforts that may have already been implemented. A “maker community” is simply a community interaction and knowledge swapping of ideas often facilitated through networked technologies.

In layman’s terms, the maker community is a group of DIY folks that share ideas and revel in the creation of new devices as well as tinkering with existing ones.

The plastic material used to print the straps is a type of PLA. PLA is a thermoplastic polyester with backbone formula. PLA has become popular economically produced from renewable resources.

Windham and Heyne are very much part of the maker community. The two are experimenting with a few other types of material to produce the strap as well. It’s this tinkering mentality often utilized within the maker communities that helps make existing products better, more comfortable.

Commonly, products that are derived from maker communities find their way to the front lines, where they are often urgently needed much quicker than the typical manufacturer-to-user route.

The 3D-printing process builds a three-dimensional object from a computer-aided design model, usually by successively adding material layer by layer, which is why the process is sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing.

The 3D-printing process, Heyne points out, that community makers use is not intended to be manufacturer replacements.

“We fill the gap”, said Heyne.

Often the maker communities are solving a problem that normally would not exist. The facemask straps are a perfect example.

Facemasks are usually manufactured as one piece, with an elastic strap. The facemasks, under normal conditions, aren’t intended to be worn for extended periods of time, making the elastic straps a non-factor for comfortability. But the recent national health crisis has placed practically all healthcare facilities and personnel enduring far from normal working conditions.

Today in the fight against COVID-19, new needs and new challenges are the new normal. Heyne said material other than PLA is being experimented with as well.

“PLA is not flexible. While it’s adequate for facemasks, other materials may have more flexibility, which could result in having more practical uses, such as providing straps for face shields,” noted Heyne.

3D printing goes back to Heynes’ college days, having built a 3D printer in college in the mid-1990s.

“It was pretty bad, since 3D printing was in its infancy then. Once I started working at CCRi, I learned the company had a printer that didn’t work. I brought it home, and Kevin and I attempted to make it operable,” said Heyne.

Long story, the old 3D printer was a lost cause. But through CCRi and their annual “holiday money program,” the two were able to purchase a new 3D printer.

CCRi’s holiday money program provides every employee an amount of money proportional to tenure. The employee can then spend the money on something for the company.

Heyne and Austin purchased a new printer.

“After setting up the printer at work that we bought this January, we realized how much 3D printing has evolved. It resparked our interest,” said Heyne.

So, realizing how efficient and cool 3D printing had become, Heyne did what any tech guy would do: he got one for himself to have at home. Who wouldn’t, right?

Heyne said that as soon as demand drops after COVID-19, he plans on purchasing one as well.

Others in the area have also joined in the community maker neighborhood, making masks, and other personal protective equipment as well.

Proving the point that community support is indeed contagious.

And in this case, that’s a good thing.