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Home : News : News
NEWS | May 7, 2020

836th Cyberspace Operations Squadron Airman turns hobby into life-saving enterprise

By Trevor Tiernan 67th Cyberspace Wing Public Affairs

During times of crisis, the Air Force family rallies to support one another. For some, that family extends beyond those in the blue uniform.

As the COVID-19 pandemic caused personal protective equipment shortages across the healthcare industry, Staff Sgt. Austin Cooperrider, from the 836th Cyberspace Operations Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, did what seems like a simple thing … he pressed “PRINT.”

“My initial inclination is I want to help where I can,” he said. “I know I don’t have any medical skills to help the front lines of the pandemic, but we all have something to contribute. I just found my niche in 3D printing.”

Cooperrider’s help came in the form of 3D printing face shields for healthcare workers through Masks for Docs. The organization is a grassroots effort that brings volunteers around the world together to get much needed protective equipment to medical professionals. A big part of the volunteer effort comes from the 3D printing community, both hobbyists and commercial businesses.

“The 3D printing community across the world has taken the banner in supporting hospital needs,” Cooperrider said. “Major 3D printing companies and universities have taken their printer farms, along with 24-hour teams and donated printers, to produce as many as 1,000 face shields a day.”

The face shields the volunteers are making are very simple in design, yet effective in protecting those working around sick patients every day. Made up of just three plastic pieces, a headband, a clear plastic face shield, and a support band, the masks can also be sanitized multiple times for extended service.

“The shields are made of sheet plastic or repurposed clear binder covers,” Cooperrider said. “So anyone with a printer can make the headbands. The plastic sheet just needs to be sized and holes punched so that it fits onto the headband.”

Cooperrider first heard about the program early on via social media.

“Multiple social networking sites I visit had posts about printing masks and shields for US and European hospitals,” he said. “A few times, I saw the Masks for Docs organization referenced. Then a previous co-worker made a call out to people he knew with printers to help fill the need in San Antonio. That was when I joined and realized the scope of Masks for Docs.”

In the short time the organization has existed it has grown to more than 5,000 volunteers, with 115 chapters on six continents, and over 1,000 3D printers running round the clock. In their first two weeks, volunteers like Cooperrider delivered 100,000 masks to frontline healthcare workers across the globe.

The San Antonio chapter of 20 plus volunteers that Cooperrider organizes has currently produced over 500 face shields and delivered them to local medical treatment facilities as well as the San Antonio Military Health System.

“We have about 300 more ready to be delivered,” he said. “As we are still gathering members, our production is expected to grow. The current estimation is that we are producing about 100-150 a day, and will grow as we get more printers up and running.”

By partnering with the Bexar County Medical Society he ensured the masks were getting to the right people. The medical society became a distribution point for us and helped deliver to all of the hospitals and smaller clinics in San Antonio and the surrounding area.

According to Cooperrider the process doesn’t require one to be a 3D printing expert to get involved, nor is expensive equipment required.

“Knowledge in 3D printing is actually very minimal,” he said. “You can learn most all you need on printing over the course of an evening or two watching YouTube videos. The cost of entry is low to moderate at around $250 depending on which brand and version you buy. There are some tips and tricks people have learned along the way, but plenty of people are willing to give you advice. All you need is a file of a 3D rendered object, a free slicing tool that makes the computer code, and then your printer to run the code. A few hours later the rendered object is complete.”

His involvement had an unexpected side effect in the form of the positive effect it had on his own resiliency.

“When people are required to stay at home and leave for only the bare essentials, it is beneficial to have something to focus on,” he said. “Doubly so, when you feel like you are contributing to the cause. This is an invisible enemy, in a sort of way, and not having the means to combat it makes people feel useless. I found a way to fight and make a difference.

“Even if you don’t have a 3D printer, you can still help,” Cooperrider added. “There also is a large group of people who sew facemasks. San Antonio does not have a sewing presence at this time but Masks for Docs has plenty of people who will help teach you how to sew the masks and help source the material.”

With no vaccine against the COVID-19 virus on the horizon, PPE for healthcare workers will continue to be in demand. Cooperrider encouraged anyone with an interest in 3D printing, or just supporting their local community, to get involved.

“If anyone would like to join find your local Mask for Docs group,” he said, “or if there isn’t one, make one.”

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