By Rob Rogers THE BILLINGS GAZETTE
BILLINGS – The reusable plastic face masks designed for 3D printers by a college graduate and a pair of local medical professionals have gone global. The free open-source software file they created has been downloaded or shared in 148 countries across six continents.
Dubbed the Montana Mask, the design has now made the jump from 3D printers to injection mold production, crafted by the Bozeman company Spark R&D, T he Billings Gazette reported.
That move allows for much faster mass production and gives the masks a more comfortable feel. Injection mold production can use materials that are softer and more flexible than the plastic required by 3D printers.
“It’s been really cool to see,” said Colton Zaugg, a college graduate with a degree in microbiology.
Colton; his father, Spencer Zaugg, a Billings dentist; and their friend, Dusty Richardson, a neurosurgeon at Billings Clinic, worked together in March to design a face mask with a replaceable filter that can be produced from a 3D printer. Once they got a prototype they were happy with, the trio posted the code for free online.
The story gained national attention and last week a past employee of Spark R&D reached out to the company’s owner, Will Ritter, on Facebook asking if there was something Spark could do in its production shop.
Ritter was intrigued and called around to some contacts he had in the health care industry in Bozeman to find out how legitimate the masks were.
“I didn’t want to jump the gun, so to speak,” he said. “I didn’t want to waste their time. I didn’t want to waste our time.”
By Thursday he had connected with Richardson, and the two immediately got to work on a design that would work with injection mold production.
Spark R&D designs and produces splitboard bindings and accessories. Splitboards are backcountry snowboards that can separate into skis. Its Bozeman shop houses design and production equipment and is able to craft and produce all the parts and pieces it needs for its product line.
In order to produce the Montana Mask, all Spark needed was a computer-aided design to create the mold that could then be used to form the mask. Ritter spent all Thursday afternoon, working until about 1 a.m. Friday on his computer, crafting the initial design.
The two machinists in his shop then worked on building the mold and getting everything ready to produce the first mask. Ritter and Richardson continued to fine tune the design through the weekend and by Tuesday they had a design and prototype that everyone was happy with.
“It was really cool to see how fast it came together,” Ritter said. “When there’s a pandemic on, you can really haul some ass.”
Everyone was delightfully surprised at how well the masks worked using injection molding.
“They worked like crazy,” Colton Zuagg said.
The masks were softer and Ritter will able to produce them in several sizes. However, the biggest advantage to injection mold production is speed. It takes a 3D printer up to three hours to print one mask; the injection mold process at Spark R&D spits them out in under a minute.
When production gets completely up and running, Spark will be able to produce 2,800 masks a day from their two machines.
Speed is something that’s on everyone’s mind. As COVID-19 continues to spread and the number of infected residents in Montana rises, the worry about running short on face masks is a growing concern. Shortages have happened all over the country.
“We don’t want to be unprepared,” Richardson said.
Having the Montana Mask on hand would give hospitals and other health care providers a backup that could be used should the supply chain for traditional face masks dry up.
“If we never have to use them on a widespread basis, great,” Richardson said. “Our goal is to have a good option for our health care providers on the front line.”
Billings-area fiber manufacturing business Flowmark/High Tech Filters has worked to create the reusable filters that fit into the front of the mask. Flowmark had ramped up production by the middle of last week and taken orders from all over the country.
Spark R&D will make its design open source, available to anyone who wants it. In terms of financial compensation for the company, Ritter said right now his company is simply concerned with making the masks and getting them out to those who need them as quickly as possible.
“We can worry about money later,” he said.
Jim Duncan, president of the Billings Clinic Foundation, said for more than a week now donors have been making gifts to the Foundation’s Innovation Fund, set up to help battle COVID-19. He said he wasn’t surprised that donations like this have come in.
“This story from the start, through all the new players, is a point of pride for Montana,” he said.
“The people of Montana have come together to make this happen,” he said. “To see this idea go out and inspire other people … is phenomenal.”
As the design has been shared, it’s been refined and redesigned and re-shared to meet needs the Zauggs and Richardson hadn’t anticipated. Colton Zaugg said it’s been gratifying to see the innovation and enthusiasm with which thousands of people have embraced their project.
“It’s been a little overwhelming,” he said.
To make the mask design more accessible, they’ve uploaded everything – including testing results and their research and development – to a new website, www.makethemasks.com.