Face masks made using 3D printers offer improved protection, research suggests

Face masks made using smartphones and 3D printers could help better protect people during future epidemics or further waves of coronavirus, according to research.

Engineers at the University of Edinburgh devised a system to create bespoke, reusable masks for health workers – designed using photos taken with smartphones.

The researchers carried out a pilot trial with 66 volunteer staff from NHS Lothian, including plastic surgeons, speech therapists and virologists, with the 3D scanners and printers available in hospitals.

3D images were generated with a precision scanner or smartphone photos and put through a computer programme to create moulds to precisely match the contours of an individual’s face.

The team assembled the final product using additional plastic parts and a filter section.

Researchers say the approach could offer a cheaper and more sustainable alternative to single-use face masks – which do not always fit properly and were in short supply during the first wave of the current pandemic – and could also be safely decontaminated using common household detergents such as washing-up liquid.

Almost 90% of volunteers wearing the bespoke masks passed a face fit test, compared to 76% wearing single-use masks.

Reusable mask
The final product sees additional plastic parts and a filter section added (University of Edinburgh/PA)

Being able to take and send pictures remotely would also bring benefits when social distancing and remote working is commonplace, the team says.

Dr Adam Stokes, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, led the study and the trial was funded by the Chief Scientist Office’s (CSO) Rapid Research in Covid-19 programme.

He said: “With this funding from the CSO, our team was able to design a new custom-fit and reusable face mask, to conduct a clinical trial, and to run virology assays for disinfection protocols.

“This project lays the groundwork for reusable PPE products that reduce the environmental impact from masks going to landfill, that enable resilience in the UK supply chain, and that meet the highest FFP3 standards as required by front line healthcare workers.

“This team drew on our expertise from engineering, clinical practice and the private sector and we have developed, rapidly, a proven technology that could prove vital in saving lives and protecting the planet.”