The basement of Zach Tomlin’s Hampstead home last week was filled with soft whirs, zips and clicks, as a bank of black plastic and steel machines slowly built plastic objects, line by line.
“Right here we have two Ender-5 Pros. We have a Makerbot; I call this the boss, that’s the big beast,” Tomlin said, gesturing at the larger unit. “We have two Ender-3 Pros. As you can see I’m working on assembling one.”
Normally a cybersecurity expert with his own company, Tomlin Technology, Inc., the COVID-19 epidemic and need for personal protective equipment in the community and among first responders led Tomlin to begin coordinating with the Carroll business community for donations and in-kind contributions to set up a confederation of 3D printing operations to produce face masks to donate to those who need them; firefighters, health care workers and possibly the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office.
“This is a very, very urgent situation and needs to be done,” he said. “I have the expertise to do it, I have the connections to talk to people get it done. And, you know, as hard as it is, for me to say, I’ll figure the money out later, like, you know? Saving lives, or trying to, is much, much more valuable.”
Tomlin is not alone.
Community members with sewing skills began coordinating — remotely — to produce and distribute cotton facemasks to nurses and first responders in late March, and now those with the necessary 3D printing technology are doing the same, but taking the manufacturing, and the mask technology, to the next level.
In Eldersburg, Melissa and Alex Turski, owners of Down the Street IT, and the Freedom District Lions, are collaborating to print and distribute plastic face shields to nursing homes and doctors offices.
“We supplied our first 12 to Sun Valley Communities and then a few to Prime Physical Therapy,” Melissa wrote in an email. “In total 246 shields have been requested, including a request from Liberty Pediatrics.”
And at Carroll Community College, Professor of Digital Design and Fabrication Scott Gore is leading an effort he hopes will produce the same types of masks Tomlin is printing, but at a higher volume.
“We are running seven printers,” he said. “Estimating a 10% loss — there’s always film that’s going to jam, something that’s not going to fit, something that gets broken — I like to say conservatively we are aiming for about 100 a week.”
The masks have multiple parts, a plastic body and then an insert which holds a piece of filter material, which could be cut from a household air filter or other face mask.
“What’s cool about these,” Gore said, “is they are a little bit malleable with the flexibility of plastic. So you get them in hot water and they mold and contort to the person’s face creating a better seal.”
“Not an N95,” Tomlin adds, “but better than nothing. Better than cotton.”
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Tomlin and Gore are working together, with Tomlin picking up and helping to distribute masks printed at the college to multiple fire companies, Lorien in Taneytown, the Carroll County Department of Social Services and Penn-Marr Human Services, according to Gore.
Tomlin also took some masks to the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office location at the former North Carroll High School, joining them in testing the masks with pepper spray and tear gas.
“I’m not one to pass something out that I’m not willing to try out myself so I suited up and jumped in,” Tomlin said. “It was an amazing way to test out the mask. We had some leakage and we need to work more on the filtration unit but we are close. I’m making some modifications.”
The collective effort is also something of a test of the power of 3D printing as a manufacturing at or near the point of need technology, Gore said, the confederation of people printing masks evidence for local mico-manufacturers being able to fill the supply chain during emergencies.
“My real priority was making sure our county could be addressed,” Gore said. "Big companies are helping on a national level, which is great, but that national need is going to go Washington, D.C., New York, California, not Westminster Maryland."
“You’re seeing big companies with the big money in the cities like New York, Los Angeles. Who is thinking about Carroll County? You know, us rednecks up here?” he said. “And, you know, I’ve been here before, my family’s been here for four generations. We’re not just farmers anymore. We’re not. We’ve got a lot of tech stuff.”