During this era of coronavirus, certain items have become nearly impossible to find.
Toilet paper and paper towels for sure, just ask anyone who's tried to purchase either recently (side note: I snagged the last six-pack of paper towels at the grocery store yesterday and guarded them like I was holding the winning lottery ticket).
Turn down the aisle for hand sanitizer and wipes, and you'll find an empty shelf staring back at you.
Protective masks have been in short supply too, not only for the frontline health care workers who have an essential need for the equipment to prevent infecting themselves and those they come in close contact with while treating infected individuals, but also for the average citizen trying to protect themselves and others while out in public.
One Tampa Bay Lightning employee has turned a 3D printing side business into a producer of these potentially life-saving masks.
A local non-profit organization has already benefitted with more to follow.
When Bryce Huffman, network administrator at the Lightning's parent company Vinik Sports Group, read the number of requests for protective masks, he got to work figuring out how to make some.
He found the schematics for a practical mask online through Rowan University. The mask doesn't replace the anti-viral N95 but does act as a barrier to prevent the user from touching their face and from spreading droplets to other people. Most importantly, It's reusable. And the filter is made of a replaceable, non-woven fabric easily found at drugstores or supermarkets.
Huffman did a production run and was happy with the result.
He told his boss Andrew McIntyre, the Lightning's SVP of technology and innovation, about the mask and asked if the organization would be interested in distributing. McIntyre sent the proposal around.
A couple days later, the Lightning offered to cover the cost of the materials as long as Huffman could keep pumping them out.
He got back to work.
Huffman's been printing masks for about two weeks now and has roughly 300 in his stock.
When Lightning SVP of Philanthropy and Community Initiatives Elizabeth Frazier heard about Huffman's mask-making capabilities, she remembered a phone call she had a day earlier with Mindy Murphy, president and CEO of The Spring of Tampa Bay, a non-profit whose stated mission is to "prevent domestic violence, protect victims and promote change in lives, families and communities."
Murphy had expressed an immediate need for masks, half-jokingly saying they might have to resort to vacuum bags to protect their staff. There's an unfortunate corollary between quarantining and an uptick in domestic violence cases. Workers at The Springs needed masks to handle and manage the increased number of intake and feel safe doing so.
Frazier put Murphy and Huffman in touch. The two met in the 15-minute circle outside AMALIE Arena, where Huffman delivered 40 of his 3D-printed masks to The Spring.
"It's super great what Bryce started to do on his own, and we were delighted to be able to play matchmaker and help facilitate," Frazier said. "Bryce had actually volunteered there before, so he was already aware of their mission and what they did."
Frazier said she's reaching out to more non-profits to see if others need masks. Huffman has since donated another 20 to The Spring.
"Bryce's masks are a huge blessing to our frontline staff keeping women and children safe at The Spring of Tampa Bay," Murphy said. "We ask our staff to be unsung heroes each day, risking their personal health safety to continue helping survivors of domestic violence. But plenty of community heroes like Bryce have stepped up to support our mission, and their love and kindness fuels our team in this time of great uncertainty."
It takes roughly four hours to print one mask, depending on the size. Huffman makes small (3.5 hours), medium (4 hrs.) and large (4.5 hrs.). With his setup, he can produce 32 to 35 if he has his printers working continuously over a 24-hour period.
Realistically, he can make 25 in a day.
He has to sleep of course, And then there's downtime to replace the spool that's feeding the plastic into the machine. Someone has to be at home and awake when it runs out. The printers can break too. They're prone to mechanical errors.
"They're tinkering machines," Huffman said. "They're really just a perfectly-precise hot glue gun."
Huffman taught himself how to turn an interest in an emerging technology into a side business.
He first dabbled in 3D printing when he ordered one for AMALIE Arena to make replacement parts as needed.
Why wait a couple days for delivery of a camera lens cap when you can print one in a couple hours?
When the 3D printer arrived, it came disassembled
"I didn't realize it was a complete kit," he said. "There wasn't a single screw or nut that had been assembled on it at that point. I literally built the printer piece by piece, ran every wire, tested it, calibrated it and got the prints coming out of it."
The mechanically-inclined Huffman was intrigued by his creation.
"The second I got that thing working, I was like, 'Oh, this is awesome. I need something bigger and more powerful for myself at home.'"
Huffman purchased a 3D printer for his personal use and taught himself everything: designing, coding, best materials to use, top techniques, etc.
"I started doing a lot of research on it, got really into the community," Huffman said. "I joined online communities to help me troubleshoot online with them, a lot of good support there. I started building up my fleet. I realized this was a really good opportunity to turn into a business as well. It's a new, emerging technology and something I was able to grasp pretty easily."
Huffman started a side business, HuffCo 3D, creating custom pieces using his self-taught 3D printing acumen. One of his early, make-or-break assignments was for a baseball team locally who needed hard-shell enclosures to protect their high-speed cameras behind home plate and along the base lines.
The first day Huffman's finished product was put to use, a foul ball tipped straight back, the home plate camera taking a direct hit.
It survived unscathed.
"That was a good sign for HuffCo," Huffman said.
Huffman has plans for more personal protective equipment. He's doing test runs for ear savers, which take the pressure off the ear of the mask wearer, making the masks more comfortable to wear repeatedly for long stretches of time.
"They're like a little strap you can put your mask's elastic on to, and it takes the pressure off your ears that way," he said. "A lot of hospitals are requesting them."
And he continues to pump out more masks, his 3D printers whirring well into the night.
"Just trying to help out the community," he said.