‘We can crank these out’ — Navy Seabees 3D-print 2,500 masks a day for sailors

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Navy Seabees face mask

Builder Constructionman Taliyah Hassell, from Memphis, Tenn., assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 4, removes face mask frames from a 3-D printer on Naval Base Ventura County, Port Hueneme, April 13, 2020.

Even while COVID-19 is keeping most people inside, service members in the U.S. Navy continue to do essential work.

La Crosse native Todd Jonas’s team has created a way to keep those people as safe as possible and prevent them from spreading the virus.

His team at the Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center in Port Hueneme, Calif., is 3D printing face masks and face shields for essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic, making 2,500 per day.

“It feels fantastic to feel like you’re making a difference,” Jonas, the additive manufacturing implementation lead at the facility, said.

Jonas joined the U.S. Navy after graduating from Logan High School in 1985. After leaving the Navy, he worked for a while, then went back to school at California State College in Sacramento, graduating in 2000 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

He took a job at Naval Facilities because it combined his love of mechanical engineering and the ocean. Typically his job involves evaluating civilian technology for use by the military and 3D printing items needed by the Navy.

“If you break a part on a vehicle or something like that, with 3D printing, depending on the type of material, you can make the part,” Jonas said.

Seabees face masks

Builder Constructionman Thomas Mullaney, from Frederick, Md., assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 4, cuts fabric for 3-D-printed face masks on Naval Base Ventura County, Port Hueneme, April 13, 2020

As the coronavirus swept the nation, his team decided to shift its focus to personal protective equipment.“There was a huge need for medical PPE. We had heard that some people in their garages were coming up with designs to make face shields and masks,” Jonas said.

They jumped at the chance to put their skills to work for the greater good, said Capt. Michael Saum, the commander of the facility.

“This global COVID-19 pandemic does not deter (Naval Facilities Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center) from our mission to provide specialized expeditionary solutions to the warfighter,” Saum said. “The fact that we continue to support the warfighter, alongside the warfighter, and meet the needs of our community, gives our team a great sense of purpose.”

The team comprised of civilians and members of the U.S. Navy Seabees — a group of engineers and construction workers — has 21 3D printers printing out personal protective equipment components in three sizes, which are then assembled by Seabees and shipped to those who need them.

“We can crank these out and get them to people in need,” Jonas said.

'In between the N95 and home-sewn masks'

They tried out a few designs from the National Institute of Health website and landed on one that is being clinically evaluated by the Veterans Administration.

“What (the FDA has) done is they’ve said is as long as it’s in clinical evaluation, you can use it for emergency use,” he said.

The mask they’re making includes a MERV13 filter, a 3D printed frame, four rubber bands and a cloth patch, all of which are disinfected and carefully packaged in a plastic bags by people wearing masks and rubber gloves. While they’re not quite as good as the N95 masks used in hospitals, they’re not your typical homemade mask either.

“The type of mask that we’re making is beyond that. It’s kind of in between the N95 and home-sewn masks,” Jonas said.

The first shipment went out to naval shipyards in Hawaii and the group is working on getting them to the USNS Mercy and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“If they have to work and they can’t social distance like we need to do, the idea is that at least you have that to mitigate the spread,” Jonas said.

Jonas said if just one of the masks or face shields they put out keeps someone from getting sick, then it would be worth the effort.

©2020 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.) - Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.