Coronavirus: two UAE universities develop 3D-printed reusable face masks and shields

Mass production at local factories will reduce prices and eliminate risk of scarcity

Face masks produced by New York University Abu Dhabi. Courtesy New York University Abu Dhabi
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Researchers at two UAE universities are finalising the design of their face masks and shields before large scale production begins in the country.

UAE University in Al Ain and New York University Abu Dhabi will use 3D printing to make PPEs in large numbers and at a lower cost, which in turn will reduce the risk of shortages.

UAE University has developed reusable and disposable versions of a face shield, while NYU Abu Dhabi has designed a hard-wearing face mask, similar to a N95 mask, but one that can be reused.

“The idea is to do it locally, in the UAE," said Ramesh Jagannathan, an NYU Abu Dhabi engineering professor and managing director of StartAD, the university’s innovation and entrepreneurship programme.

"We can not only solve the local problem, we can create a solution for the world and it’s a sustainable solution,” he said.

"Right now, masks are disposable – you wear them and toss them out. Ours is maybe better from sustainability and cost issue. All of our mask is plastic, so it's easily manufactured using injection moulding."

NYU Abu Dhabi began preparing masks in March, working with Mubadala Healthcare and the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, whose medical staff tried on and tested various prototypes.

The mask is made of a soft plastic that touches the face and a more rigid plastic that forms the main structure, with a disposable filter being attached to this.

The main mask, minus its filter, is sterilisable using UV light, heat or chemical treatment.

Dr Oraib Al Ketan, an NYU Abu Dhabi research instrumentation scientist, is fine-tuning the design before production begins at a local company.

No manufacturer has been selected, but Prof Jagannathan said that finding one in the UAE able to produce masks by injection moulding would be easy.

While the price of the mask is not yet determined, it will be “extremely inexpensive” to produce, potentially helping healthcare facilities cut expenses in the long term over disposable N95 masks, which can retail at about $6 (Dh22) each.

We are really proud to be involved in such an initiative and helping those who are in the frontline

UAE University’s Science and Innovation Park is meanwhile planning to start production of its face shields, which will be distributed to businesses in healthcare and other sectors at little more than cost price.

Currently, cheap face shields cost about $4 each (Dh14.7), but some models are many times this amount.

The Science and Innovation Park (SIP) has developed reusable and disposable versions of its face shield, differing in the materials used.

A deal has been reached to supply the face shields to a major UAE healthcare company and agreements are close to being struck with other large organisations.

Professor Ramesh Jangannathan, vice provost for entrepreneurship and managing director of StartAD, a company based at the university. Courtesy New York University Abu Dhabi

“We are really proud to be involved in such an initiative because feeling like we are making a contribution and helping those who are in the frontline, who are working day and night to fight against Covid-19, and providing them with the basic PPE, is very important,” said Professor Nihel Chabrak, the SIP’s chief executive.

The basic design comes from a template freely available online but this has been extensively altered and improved through feedback from doctors and other medical staff who tested about 300 face shields in about 10 prototype designs.

“We sent different samples to at least 10 big organisations in the UAE. The material itself was made more comfortable. When you try the face shield for one hour, it’s not the same as when you have it on for one day. The materials we use had to be changed,” said Prof Chabrak.

Early in the prototyping process, it took about six hours to produce each face shield, but the park has since bought additional printing equipment, increasing the daily production capacity to about 500.

Prof Chabrak said the SIP was making the shields partly as a public service but also to bring closer the UAE’s public and private sector.

“Even the ones coming from China we found them to be extremely expensive," she said. "People are really making a lot of money out of this. We’re not really using this initiative to make a profit

“Our purpose is to engage industry. It’s a win-win situation. We need to cover our costs, but at the same time these institutions we’ll be working with will be supporting our entrepreneurs in the future.”