Whitfield County Schools 3D printers making face masks, which are then assembled by Shaw Industries

Ben Oliver, left, an instructor at Southeast Whitfield High School, and Steven Smith, who teaches engineering at Northwest Whitfield High School, discuss 3D printing of face masks for health care professionals on Wednesday at Southeast. 

DALTON, Ga — With face masks among the most-needed items for health care professionals as they battle the new coronavirus (COVID-19) from the front lines, representatives of Shaw Industries and Whitfield County Schools are among those lending helping hands. 

Ben Oliver, at Southeast Whitfield High School, and Steven Smith, at Northwest Whitfield High School, are using 3D printers at their school to make masks, which are then assembled by Shaw Industries, said Smith, who has taught engineering at Northwest for the past handful of years. “It’s incredible how everyone has pulled together to help solve this problem.”

When Shaw reached out regarding this possibility, both Oliver and Smith were eager to assist, because “this is what engineers do,” said Oliver, an instructor in Southeast’s drafting, design and engineering pathway. “They help people.”

While Northwest actually boasts five printers, only one is capable of producing the masks, because “it takes a bigger plate,” Smith said. “It’s a full face mask with a frame and a shield; we print the frames” and then Shaw “puts it all together.”

“Our Shaw makers have set up a 3D printer farm at the Shaw Innovation Center & MakerSpace in Dalton and are producing face shields for local hospitals,” said Deanna Mathis, director of community outreach and corporate giving at Shaw. “They have found a design that is faster to print and have developed a way to stack the design and print several at a time.”

The initial file from Shaw was for a “single layer,” but Oliver “extracted the single layer and duplicated it 12 times,” he said. “At the start, we could only do two, and it took 14 hours, but now we can run 12 in a 24-hour period.” 

Last Sunday, Oliver and Smith “talked through layering and exchanged ideas, (but) it was kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants,” Oliver said with a chuckle. “We don’t do a lot of R&D (research and development) in education.” 

Oliver, Smith and several other educators from local schools have joined the effort, Mathis said. Shaw delivered the first batch of masks to Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton on Monday. 

Materials for the masks are a concern, Oliver said. “Material is pretty expensive, but I had quite a bit of raw material in stock.” 

Smith has been printing masks for nearly a week, and he ordered additional materials on Tuesday, he said. “We’ll continue until they tell us to stop.”

The Northwest printer is capable of producing a dozen of the masks per day, as is the Southeast device, and “we’re fortunate to have the printers,” Smith said. “The machine we use makes an almost-perfect replica of what we need it to be.” 

Oliver’s only regret is that students are shut out of school at this time, because this project would be a terrific learning opportunity. 

“I wish my kids could be here for this, but this is bigger than all of us, and I hope they will see that,” Oliver said. “It’s a unique opportunity.” 

Smith has to visit Northwest daily to ensure the process runs smoothly, as does Oliver at Southeast, but the printers are “doing a great job for us,” Smith said. “So many people are doing so much more than we are, but it feels great that we have an opportunity to help a little.” 

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