Liz McCormick Published

With A Little Help From Technology, W.Va. Is Stepping Up To Produce Critical Protective Gear

Kay Dartt, 3D fabrication manager, and Chase Molden, theater technical director, show the West Virginia National Guard how to cast an N95 respirator mask using silicone molds. The design comes from a 3D printed model developed by Dartt and Molden.

As the coronavirus continues to spread in West Virginia, the need for personal protective equipment, or PPE, has increased as well. But more than two dozen organizations across West Virginia are working to provide this critical equipment to frontline workers.

3D Printing Personal Protective Equipment

For nearly a month, Shepherd University’s Fine Arts, Science, Technology, Engineering, Educational Resource (FASTEnER) lab has been 3D printing face shields for frontline emergency and medical workers in the Eastern Panhandle. And since the start of April, the lab has also been printing N95 respirator masks for the West Virginia National Guard to distribute across the state.

“The need has been overwhelming, so I’ve been trying to come in as much as possible to fill these orders,” said Kay Dartt, Shepherd University’s 3D fabrication manager.

Dartt and just two other volunteers have been working almost every day to produce face shields and N95 masks. Dartt said she keeps the team small to limit how many people are in and out of the lab and to follow social distancing guidelines.

“When I get in in the morning, the first thing I do is I go around and collect all the prints that printed overnight,” she said. “And usually those are things that will take a little bit longer to print.”

The lab has more than 30 3D printers. Most were loaned from Berkeley and Jefferson County Schools to help meet the need.

Kay Dartt monitors a 3D printer at Shepherd University.

Credit Shepherd University
Kay Dartt monitors a 3D printer at Shepherd University.

During the day, Dartt typically prints face shields since they don’t take as long to make. But overnight, she has the printers making N95 masks, which can take up to eight hours to print two on a single printer.

3D printers work by following a model that was built in a computer aided drawing program. The program creates a path for the printer to follow as it brings the model to life.

“And it needs that path because what the 3D printer is doing is it is extruding a very thin line of plastic as it travels along that path,” she said.

The printer traces back and forth, layering plastic one tiny line at a time until the object begins to materialize. Dartt said her lab can comfortably produce 400 to 500 face shields and about 60 N95 masks a week.

To date, Dartt said they’ve printed more than 2,000 face shields for the local area and 120 N95 masks for the West Virginia National Guard. 

3D Printing To Silicone Molds

But in the past week, Kay Dartt’s efforts at Shepherd University to 3D print N95 masks has evolved. A recent design made at the school exceeded “the standards of an N95 mask,” according to Maj. Gen. Jim Hoyer, Adjutant General of the West Virginia National Guard in a recent press conference.

Shepherd is no longer 3D printing N95 masks but is instead now casting them, based on that design. These N95 masks are made from a 2-part urethane plastic that is poured into a form that hardens into its final shape. The school is providing training to members of the National Guard so they can produce their own. 

Dartt said in a press release from the university that using molds allows production of up to 70 or 100 masks per hour, depending on how many molds and equipment are available.

The school is now only using its 3D printers to produce face shields for the local community.

Groups Across W.Va. Come Together To Produce PPE

Shepherd University is one of at least 27 schools, organizations and private entities across West Virginia working with the West Virginia National Guard to 3D print personal protective equipment.

“There’s not just a national shortage of PPE. There’s a global shortage of PPE,” said Maj. Gen. Hoyer.

Hoyer said the initiative to produce PPE is being paid for through the state’s contingency fund. He said West Virginia is not experiencing the high level of shortages that some other states are, but he said we have to be prepared.

“I think right now with the great work that people are doing in West Virginia, we’re breaking that curve,” he said. “But we’ve got to be prepared for the worst, and we’ve got to be prepared if a second wave hits us harder than the first wave, like in some places around the world. We’ve got to be prepared for that.”

Right now, the United States is in its first round of coronavirus cases, but a second surge of cases could be possible, if social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders are not adhered to and lifted too soon. Some countries in Asia that tried to relax social distancing guidelines after getting on top of the virus are now experiencing a second influx of cases. That has concerned public health officials. 

But Shepherd University, West Virginia University, Marshall, West Virginia State and more, including several community and technical colleges are using this partnership with the National Guard to 3D print N95 masks to try and stay ahead of a possible second surge. Even the Boys and Girls Club of Parkersburg is helping out.

Some of the more than 30 3D printers at Shepherd University.

Credit Shepherd University
Some of the more than 30 3D printers at Shepherd University.


Hoyer said once these entities create the masks, they’re picked up by the Guard and sent to a facility in Charleston to be fitted with filters and sanitized.

Hoyer said the Guard can sanitize up to 1,500 N95 masks a week, while Charleston Area Medical Center, which has also partnered for the initiative, can sanitize 4,300 per day. Hoyer said the 3D printed masks are quality controlled, have been tested and are 99 percent as effective as traditional ones.  

For Hoyer, getting the state involved in producing PPE goes beyond supplying critical protective gear to frontline workers, though. He said it’s also about manufacturing these items locally rather than overseas.

“Not only does that help West Virginia, but we can push that out to the rest of the country and the world, and it’s an example of people finally understanding that West Virginia is a pretty damn good place to be. We’re pretty innovative. We’re pretty creative,” he said.

And there’s more than 3D printed N95 masks being made.

Hoyer said the National Guard is also partnering with several other entities across the state to make other protective gear, including reusable surgical masks and gowns, full body suits and boots. Additionally, he said there’s work happening in West Virginia to create a ventilator that could support two individuals instead of one.