A Lexington-based company that uses three-dimensional scanning for industrial pipelines has started helping University of Kentucky HealthCare make custom and much-needed masks using 3D printing.
Seikowave, which was started in 2010 and produces 3D scanning technology for the oil and gas industry, was months away from launching a new 3D facial scanning technology that could be used in dentistry and other medical fields.
Then the coronavirus outbreak hit.
Matt Bellis, president of Seikowave, was about to send its new facial scanners to a dental company in Florida for initial testing. But the company called Seikowave and told them to keep the scanners for now. Dental work had largely stopped due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Worse, demand for Seikowave’s existing 3D scanning technology used by oil and gas companies to check pipelines had also slowed as that industry halted production.
“We had these five face scanners in the office with nowhere to go,” Bellis said.
Meanwhile, UK Chandler Hospital staff were scrambling to find sources for personal protection equipment, which is in short supply and high demand across the country. Hospital doctors turned to UK staff and faculty for help.
That’s where Daniel Lau, a UK professor of electrical engineering and one of the founders of Seikowave, comes in.
Dr. Michael Winkler, a UK associate professor of radiology, asked Lau if Seikowave’s scanners could be used to create 3D printed masks for staff.
Lau said yes.
Bellis said Seikowave got the call Friday.
The next few days were intense.
Seikowave staff spent all day Saturday, Sunday and Monday performing scans on UK staff, teaching UK how to use the equipment and working out software issues.
PRINTING FULL, CUSTOM MASKS STARTS
UK started printing parts of masks Sunday. They started printing full masks — which will be custom to each person’s face and reusable — on Wednesday, Bellis said.
Winkler, in a video blog about designing the masks, said the goal is to create individual masks with a respirator that can be cleaned and reused. Winkler worked with UK’s School of Art and Visual Studies, sometimes referred to as SAV, and other university departments to develop, print and test the mask.
“Hopefully, the filtration device can be replaced daily,” Winkler said in a video. “That’s our goal.”
Winkler said they are figuring out how to coordinate production. “We are trying to get a structure in place,” he said.
Winkler said by using 3D scanning gives masks a tight seal, Winkler said. But more importantly, the masks will be more comfortable. Respirators, which are masks that also clean and filter air, were not meant to be used all day every day.
“Our surgeons are wearing respirators all day,” Winkler said. “But they weren’t designed for everyday use. They are uncomfortable and we have surgeons complaining of pain in the bridge of their noses . . . or break down of their skin.”
Surgeons and medical staff have to be comfortable to concentrate. Discomfort can also lead to medical staff taking off their respirators.
But Winkler said the seal of the masks was essential for the respirator to work, he said.
“We want them to be lightweight and comfortable,” he said.
Several other hospitals have also expressed interest in Seikowave’s facial scanning technology to print 3D masks, Bellis said. The company is providing the scanners to the hospitals at a heavily discounted price to expedite the production of masks.
Many hospitals have 3D printers and staff who know how to design medical devices based on three-dimensional data supplied by Seikowave’s scanners and software, Bellis said.
Bellis said Seikowave may also step in to help connect hospitals with dental labs if needed. Dental labs typically have more 3D printers than hospitals. Instead of a few masks a day, some dental labs could print thousands of masks a day. Moreover, many are idle due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“I’m just so glad we could help,” Bellis said. “The timing couldn’t have worked out more perfectly.”
Protection of hospital staff is critical right now as Kentucky begins to see a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases, Bellis said. Gov. Andy Beshear said this week that Kentucky is still critically short of respirators, gowns and other personal protection equipment.
Other companies in Kentucky are also pivoting to produce much-needed personal protection equipment during the coronavirus outbreak.
Bowling Green-based Fruit of the Loom announced late Monday in a Facebook post that it will switch production from underwear and other clothing items to masks.
“To healthcare workers, thank you for all that you do. To our teams, we are proud of you for helping make this happen,” the statement read.
In addition, many Kentucky distilleries have also temporarily shifted from making bourbon to hand sanitizer.
Across the country, some large manufacturers including GM Healthcare, Ford and 3M, are teaming up to produce much-needed ventilators and respirators.