Local 3D printer owners making safety gear for frontline workers

A forgivable loan from the Métis Financial Corporation of B.C. is helping a local network of 3D printer owners produce and provide free personal protective equipment to healthcare workers and first responders throughout B.C. and beyond.

The initial support of $15,000 will allow Métis entrepreneur Dan Broadfoot, owner of Prince George-based Hollywood Fabricating Ltd., to purchase additional 3D printers and materials to keep producing plastic "ear savers" for masks and face shield frames. Broadfoot got involved several weeks ago when he was contacted by UNBC and UBC Northern Medical Program assistant professor Dr. Malgorzata Kaminska and her husband Richard.

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Kaminska and her husband had been producing the items at home with their own two 3D printers and donating them through her network of contacts in the public health sector.

"I have various 3D printing supplies and Richard reached out to me. I offered to use my 3D printers to produce the items as well," Broadfoot said. "Dr. Mal is providing the network, and we supply the items to them. I've completely taken over my master bedroom with 3D printers."

Broadfoot said reached out to the Métis Financial Corporation for help when he realized the demand for the equipment was greater than he could produce himself with his six 3D printers. He said he expects the financial support will let him double his production capacity.

Kaminska said her husband had an interest in 3D printing and had previously used their personal machine to produce educational aids for her classes at UNBC. When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread, she started looking for ways to use the 3D printer to produce much-needed equipment for frontline workers.

"I was a medical student in Toronto when the SARS pandemic hit. I remember how worried we all were about running out of personal protective equipment," she said. "I began to choose the (designs of personal protective equipment) that I, as a medical professional, would be willing to wear."

All of the equipment has to be designed and made with materials that can be cleaned properly, she said. 

The ear savers hold the strings of surgical masks behind the head, allowing them to be worn more comfortably for long hours. The face mask frames, once completed with a transparent plastic shield, protect the healthcare worker from getting patentialy-infectious droplets on their face.

Kaminska reached out at UNBC and Two Rivers Gallery to other local 3D printer operators, who agreed to produce the gear free of charge with their personal machines. But when Broadfoot came onboard, it doubled their production capacity.

A single 3D printer can produce about 30 to 40 ear savers in 24 hours.

"We have probably produced something like 3,000 to 4,000 pieces of equipment," Kaminska said. "We sent 300 to an entire police department. We have reached out to EMTs and firefighters... but healthcare workers is where the majority of our requests come from. With the amount of production Dan has... we'll be able to provide things not just locally or provincially, but throughout Canada and the U.S. It means even more first responders will be able to do their work more safely."

Kaminska, Broadfoot and the other 3D printer owners have covered all the costs of making and shipping the equipment to the workers who need them.

Kaminska said they are looking to expand what equipment they can provide, to include items like plastic covers to keep the intakes on respirator masks clean and plastic stethoscopes.

"The idea is they are cheap and you can throw them out if they are contaminated," she said. "A regular stethoscope is quite expensive."

Métis Financial Corporation CEO Evan Salter said when Broadfoot reached out to the agency for support, the board immediately jumped at the chance to help a Métis entrepreneur making a difference.

"This is just the start of the support," Salter said. "We see it as a long-term partnership."

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