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Longmont Company Uses 3D Printing For Possible Solution To PPE Shortage

Courtesy of Nathan Morimitsu
A prototype of H2 Manufacturing Solutions' respirator mask.

For years, Heidi Hostetter would grab an extra mask to take home from the doctor’s office.

“Little weird but whatever,” joked Hostetter, CEO of Longmont-based H2 Manufacturing Solutions.

But that habit paid off last week when she got a call from friend and Crossroads Safehouse Executive Director Lisa Poppaw.

Poppaw was worried about having enough personal protection equipment, or PPEs, for her clients and staff at the emergency domestic violence victim’s shelter. Hostetter gathered up about a dozen masks from around her house to donate. Still she says she felt like it wasn’t enough.

Hostetter was explaining her frustration to H2’s director of operations Nathan Morimitsu. The next day he told her to check her email. Morimitsu had found an open-source file - created by Copper 3D - for PPE respirator masks that could be made using a 3D printer and plant-based plastic infused with copper powder.

“Copper is antimicrobial by nature,” Morimitsu explained. “It’s very effective at killing viruses.”

Credit Courtesy of Nathan Morimitsu
An early prototype of H2's respirator mask, which uses plant-based plastic infused with copper powder.

While it’s uncertain exactly how effective copper will be against the coronavirus, research by the CDC showed the virus was detectable up to four hours later on copper, versus two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

With a little fine-tuning to his 3D printer, Morimitsu was able to come up with a mask prototype. He’s also looking at installing HEPA filters - like the kind you find in vacuum cleaners - for the respirator’s filtration panel.

“I said, ‘I think we can at least make some masks for Crossroads, maybe more,’” he said.

Within a day of that statement, Morimitsu was turning out between 20 and 25 masks a day, along with plastic face shields for organizations, including Crossroads, Children’s Hospital Colorado, St. Joseph's and Good Samaritan hospitals. The company has ordered three more 3D printers and by the end of the week - running 24/7 - Morimitsu hopes to be able to make about 100 a day. And that’s just from his home office.

The company reached out to others, including engineers and students stuck at home with their 3D printers, Hostetter said. Anyone that H2 could send the prototype and materials to who might be able to help them lead a mini, next wave industrial revolution.

“We quickly realized the real magic is partnering with students out of school and professionals laid off from their industries, to start providing safer masks at a faster pace,” Hostetter said. “And masks that are better than using nothing or reusing masks that are meant for one-time use. People just want to help, so they answered our call.”

Tom Bugnitz is the CEO of Manufacturer’s Edge, a consulting firm that works with the state to grow the industry in Colorado. Bugnitz is working with H2 on getting the word out to other manufacturers.

“What we’re seeing now is what we’ve seen in a lot of times in history, ordinary people do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances,” Bugnitz said. “And this is a great example of that. Two weeks ago none of us were thinking about any of this. Now, we’re mobilized as a community, and as a country, to fix things.”

But he says there’s some debate - even in the manufacturing industry - about some of these stop-gap efforts.

“The main reaction (we’re seeing) has been that, ‘Well first of all, they’re better than bandanas,’” Bugnitz said. “Second is, ‘Well, they’re better than the mask that someone is wearing for 14 hours that are certified for two hours.’”

H2’s respirators will be sent in for testing by the state’s COVID Innovation Response Team, Morimitsu said. Colorado State University is currently heading up the statewide testing of uncertified PPEs. Beginning with the N-95 mask, the university will provide recommendations on the suitability of PPE items for large-scale production and distribution to healthcare workers. Priority will be on testing PPEs that either meet – or are close to – existing federal requirements, as well as items that can be rapidly mass-produced.

But regardless of whether some of the equipment being made isn’t hospital-grade, Bugnitz said it can still be used in other organizations that use N95 masks, like veterinary clinics and shelters. Meaning those masks could then go to hospitals.

“It’s perfect for us because we don’t need to have the medical-grade (equipment),” Crossroads’ Lisa Poppaw said. “So, it’s actually a win-win all the way around.”

Before talking with H2 about making the masks, Poppaw says she’d been on multiple calls with the CDC and Larimer and Weld county health departments.

“Everybody is scrambling to try and find masks,” she said.

The shelter has a medical unit on-site with some surgical masks, but Poppaw said they didn’t want to use them up.

“Frankly we feel bad at the shelter using those when we know that there are (healthcare workers) who are using them four to five days in a row,” she said.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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