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The Missile Defense Agency Office of the Chief Engineer is stepping up to make face masks more comfortable for healthcare providers and essential workers across the nation.

As commercial resources for face masks and the tools to make them run thin during the global pandemic, employees skilled in additive manufacturing are also joining other volunteers to use their talents and personal means to quicken the production of masks to those who use them most.

“This is one of many community efforts where volunteers have rolled up their sleeves to fill a need in our community using additive manufacturing,” David McNeill, chief engineer, said. “Their service speaks to the caliber and character of the MDA team, and we know they are not alone. Many MDA civilians and contractors are stepping up and giving their time to help with similar work right now.”

Many handmade face masks have elastic bands that loop around the ears and sometimes pull the ears forward. The elastic can irritate skin and cause sores, and the bands are tight and constrictive after hours of wear. The solution: Attach the elastic bands to a plastic extender that is worn on the back of the head. Without touching the ears, the extender holds the mask in place and relieves the pressure and constriction of the elastic bands.

America Makes, a Department of Defense manufacturing institute, developed a print file that would quickly produce the extenders using additive manufacturing, or 3D printing. Some MDA contractors and civilians heard about the effort and offered to print extenders on their home printers on their personal time.

“The effort spread by word of mouth among MDA employees and their communities,” Barry Birdsong, director of manufacturing technology, said. “Anyone who wanted to participate could.”

Students from FIRST Tech Challenge teams, North Alabama high schools, and Auburn University also jumped into action and ran their 3D printers around the clock in an effort to meet the need.

In less than a month, volunteers worked privately to print about 2,500 extenders, providing the bands to hospitals, healthcare providers, sheriffs’ offices, juvenile care facilities and pharmacies in Tennessee, Florida, California and Alabama. So far the groups have been able to provide the bands to everyone who has requested them.

The volunteers heard of additional needs to improve the process to make masks worn by healthcare professionals. Cloth straps are more comfortable than elastic straps, and pleated masks are more flexible. However, sewing cloth straps takes longer than attaching elastic, and sewists can easily burn their fingers when ironing folds into fabric.

To make the sewing process easier, faster, and safer, many of the same volunteers began printing bias tape makers and pleat makers using downloadable print files from Thingiverse, an open source community that shares 3D designs. Altogether they have printed 64 bias tape makers and 36 pleat makers so far.

“There’s no limit to what we can do when we get creative and use our manufacturing know-how to help others,” Melissa Burnett, director of engineering integration, said. “Seeing additive manufacturing help thousands of Americans and improve their daily lives, that’s when you realize why advanced technologies matter.”

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