Ventilator to host multiple patients; Dixie State professor, interns design and 3D print needed supplies

Austin McLaws (pictured left) and Tito Munoz hold 3D printed medical supplies at Dixie State University, St. George, Utah, circa April 2020 | Photo courtesy of David Christensen, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — In response to a medical supply request, a professor and two interns from Dixie State University are 3D printing face shields and face masks that attach to HEPA filters. They are also working on refining a design for ventilator splitters so healthcare facilities can use one ventilator for multiple patients at a time.

DSU professor of mechanical engineering David Christensen told St. George News this project launched on March 27 after he received a call from Peter Ventura, a doctor at ENT Surgical Associates in Tooele.

Ventura and one of his anesthesiologists were looking to 3D print some face masks and face shields, and also inquired about ventilator splitters, in order to use one ventilator for multiple people in case of an emergency.

Since the university had shifted to remote instruction, Christensen, with the aid of his student interns, Austin McLaws and Tito Munoz, began printing just three days later, and the first shipment of supplies was sent out on April 1.

So far, Christensen and his interns have only been 3D printing these medical supplies for those who have asked.

Medical supplies 3D printing by David Christensen, a Dixie State University professor of mechanical engineering, and his student interns, Austin McLaws and Tito Munoz, St. George, Utah, circa April 2020 | Photo courtesy of Jyl Hall, St. George News

“We’ve just been happy to help where we can,” he said, “but there’s probably quite a few people who don’t know that we’re able to provide this service. As of probably today or tomorrow, we’ll be done printing what we’ve been asked to print. Who knows? Maybe someone else will ask us, and we’ll be happy to run a production for them as well.”

One of the interns, Tito Munoz, 23, told St. George News he’s been working primarily with 3D printing operations, which involves double-checking designs, organizing things on the print beds and making sure everything is running smoothly.

A single mask takes about two to three hours to print, but they have been printing five masks on each printer, so it takes about 20 hours, he said.

His first thoughts when he heard about this project was that it was a really good way to utilize the community to help during the current crisis, which could potentially be a major issue in St. George “considering that we live in such a high population of older people,” he said.

This experience has hit home for Munoz because his family is involved in healthcare for the elderly.

“For example, my mom is a CNA here in town, and she works at Seasons Healthcare and Rehab, and she also takes care of my grandparents,” Munoz said. “So it almost to me make it feel like I’m helping to support her and the work she does.”

This experience has caused Munoz to look more closely at his career goals and what he hopes to do with mechanical engineering. Before this, he had planned to go into mechanical engineering, and now he’s thinking more specifically about biomedical engineering, specifically in the development of medical equipment.

“It’s making me think more about helping people instead of just wherever pays the best,” he said.

Version 1 design of ventilator splitter hooked up to ventilator showing needed modification due to viral filter size, location not specified, circa April 2020 | Photo courtesy of Jyl Hall, St. George News

The other intern, Austin McLaws, 22, told St. George News that most of his time has been spent in designing the splitters for ventilators. These splitters would allow physicians to run multiple patients on one ventilator.

“I was trying to make one that was a little more aerodynamic so that it would be able to handle the load of having four people on one ventilator without it having too many losses at the joints,” McLaws said.

McLaws said he’s put in about 14 hours of time designing the splitters and making needed adjustments following the testing.

Currently, McLaws has designed three different types of splitters: a two-way, a three-way and a four-way.

“They’re thinking four-way is probably going to have to be the max, but it might have to be three depending on whether the machine can handle that many people,” McLaws said.

To print the splitters, they are using PLA plastic, a popular, plant-based plastic used for 3D printing. While the two-way splitter takes about 4-5 hours to print, it takes about 8-9 hours to print the four-way splitter, he said.

The splitters have been tested and do work, but have required adjustments. The needed modifications have been fairly minor, one of them having to do with the size of the viral filter on the ventilator being a bit larger than expected. If utilized, each ventilator would need two splitters.

Face masks attached to the HEPA filters 3D printed by David Christensen, a Dixie State University professor of mechanical engineering, and his student interns, Austin McLaws and Tito Munoz, St. George, Utah, circa April 2020 | Photo courtesy of Jyl Hall, St. George News

They just sent Version 3 of the splitters to be tested. Once the design is solidified, they hope to make this design available, and McLaws said there has even been discussion of pitching the idea to New York since they’ve been experiencing a shortage in ventilators.

Christensen told St. George News that the Dixie State lab has 24 3D printers. In the maker’s space, they also have a very large format 3D printer, as well as five or six large printers, and a couple of other printers used for fine detail. They also have multiple laser cutters, which can be used to cut out the acrylic face shields very quickly.

While everything came together for the project with ease, Christensen said a potential challenge for 3D printing materials could be in company abilities to keep up with the demand for filament supplies.

He said he’s been talking to some companies, such as MatterHackers, “and they said their filament sales are just out of the roof right now.”

So far for Dixie Primary Care in St. George, Christensen and his interns have printed 50 face shields, which took about two days to print. If needed, Christensen said they would be able to print at a much quicker rate.

For North Pointe Surgical Center in Tooele, they have printed and sent:

  •  30 face shields
  • 40 face masks
  • Four two-way splitters version 1
  • Four three-way splitters version 1
  • Four four-way splitters version 1
  • Two two-way splitters version 2 (added chamfer and taper)
  • Two three-way splitters version 2 (added chamfer and taper)
  • Two four-way splitters version 2 (added chamfer and taper)
  • Two two-way splitters version 3 (added splayed end)
  • Two three-way splitters version 3 (added splayed end)
  • Two four-way splitters version 3 (added splayed end)

Christensen said he has also received an email from Salt Lake Community College on behalf of Intermountain Healthcare asking about Dixie State’s 3D printing capabilities, but he hasn’t yet heard back or received a request.

“If need be, we could produce quite a few pieces of medical equipment or personal protective equipment, and it probably wouldn’t phase us,” he said. “We’re in a sweet position, I would say, to help others.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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