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Air Force Academy 3D prints mask extenders for Fort Carson Soldiers during COVID-19 crisis

Story and photos by Jennifer Spradlin, May 5, 2020

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Wearing a medical-grade mask might be required for healthcare workers these days as they work to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but it’s not easy.

As recent viral photos show, these masks can leave red marks on the face, and the tight ear loops can cause irritation and pain.

Fort Carson medical officials reached out to the Air Force Academy in early April to help them solve this problem, and faculty members used 3D printers at the school to quickly create more than 300 low-cost mask extenders.

The extenders pull the ear loops toward the back of the head instead of around the ears, which makes them a lot more comfortable to wear.

“Several options for extenders made their way to Evans Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson, but the [extenders] created by the Academy are favored because they’re longer, lighter and more flexible,” said John Maynard, Fort Carson’s chief of infection control. “I’ve been wearing my mask extenders with my procedure mask during my visits to the care units, and it’s made a big difference.”

Steven Brandt, a researcher in the aeronautics lab at the Academy, is glad the Academy was able to help.

“I thought it was cool they reached out to the Academy, a research institute that’s innovation-minded,” he said. “A benefit to 3D printing is the ability to rapidly design, prototype and make adjustments. There’s also advantages in terms of cost and mass production options.

Brandt said the Academy has approximately 20 3D printers of varying size and sophistication. The printers in his lab are primarily used for printing aircraft or parts for wind tunnel experiments and various capstone projects.

Adapting the typical use to address COVID-19 challenges shows the true possibilities of 3D printing, he said.

Due to the ongoing Defense Department requirement for all civilians and service members to wear a face covering while in public on a federal installation, Maynard expects Fort Carson to ask the Academy for more ear extenders.

Mask extenders will also be provided to Soldiers doing health screenings at high-traffic areas, like the commissary.