Appleton Partners Turns 3D Printers into Mask Makers

By Nick Schou   |   April 16, 2020
Ken Mineau outside Appleton Partners offices

During normal times, Appleton Partners, the architecture firm founded by Marc Appleton and based in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica, uses 3D printers to build models of custom houses as well as individual design features. But in mid-March, as news began to build of the health dangers posed by the looming coronavirus pandemic, the firm turned its equipment to a more pressing use: manufacturing facemasks and protective shields for healthcare workers battling COVID-19.

One of Appleton’s 3D printers at work

“For the most part if we needed a big model, we send it out to a print house in Colorado,” explains Appleton’s Ken Mineau. “But we use our printers to build detail components like the corner of a door that shows a raised panel or a hand rail section, hardware doorknobs, custom things that that we used to get the woodshop to make for us. Now we can make a bunch of printings for our clients and have options.”

Each of Appleton Partners’ handful of Netherlands-built Ultimaker printers is one cubic foot in size and supports two types of filaments which combine to make whatever plastic model has been specified for the printing job. “On March 19, Governor Newsom gave his stay at home order and we were looking at some videos that talked about these masks and we started researching if we could help,” Mineau recalls.

Appleton’s Steve Aldana checks a printing in progress

In researching how to help build protective gear, the firm’s Steve Aldana ran across a face shield prototype that also happened to be designed in the Netherlands. “It is very thin and looks like sunglasses with a sheet of acetate,” Mineau says. “It is simple, fits right on your face and prints in one hour, whereas it usually takes a day or two days to print a little model. And you can usually fit two or three on the print bed at one time.”

Sanitizing a face shield before sending to the frontlines

After Aldana perfected the design for the firm’s printers, Mineau shared the specifications with his sister, who had a printer at her house. “Her kids started printing them at home,” he says, adding that because his wife, Normah Halim, is a weaver, she began working on a plan to make cloth masks that could fit over the protective shields. “She enlisted some folks in our office to start cutting,” Mineau says. “So far, she and the cutters have made over one hundred masks for the front-liners. Of course when you are using old scraps of fabric, they are really nice, more and more people wanted their own masks, but the initial effort was to get the masks to the medical community.”

According to Mineau, it took a week for the doctors and nurses from Cottage Hospital to approve a design for the gear that they would accept; their specs required a longer printing job. “Meanwhile we printed forty or fifty of the one-hour ones and sent them out to underserved health clinics, including one in Cudahy,” he recalls. “Ventura Memorial Hospital wanted some, and then we started printing the ones that Cottage Hospital came up with, which take six hours to make and require four times the material and also they require elastic bands to hold on your head.”

A batch of Normah Halim’s hand-sewn masks

When Cottage finally received a large shipment of N-95 masks from China, Appleton Partners moved on to printing masks for Valle Verde, the senior assisted living facility in Santa Barbara, as well as grocery store baggers and other frontline, so-called essential workers. “We are going back to the one-size-fits-all masks,” Mineau says. “They are much simpler and less clunky than the ones the doctors wanted at Cottage Hospital.”

Thanks to help from the Santa Barbara Foundation and Montecito’s Bucket Brigade, Appleton Partners is now receiving donations of material to supply their 3D printing work. “Basically, they said they are going to purchase the masks, and told us that if we have a printer, they will give us the material and then come and pick up the gear.”

Given that, like just about everything else in Santa Barbara, the homebuilding industry is taking a hiatus, Mineau says he’s delighted that Appleton Partners has found a way to use its equipment to help the community recover from COVID-19. “It’s been fun but a lot of work,” he says. “Every day Steve is in the office loading up the machine. The masks finish every hour so it takes five minutes to reset the machine and put the new tape in, but if you do it in between your other tasks you can get it done.”

The firm is happy to accept donations of 3D printing materials to help keep the project going, Mineau says, but mostly is looking for information on where they can send their finished products. At the moment, the firm has three printers operating and is busy assembling two more. “Right now, we have just about everything we need,” Mineau says. “We just want to get the word out on places to send them to.”


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