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WSU student uses 3D printer to make protective masks

Washington State University engineering student Conner Weller, shown here, has helped found an organization that is using 3D printers to manufacture parts to make protective masks for essential workers. (Courtesy Connor Weller)
Washington State University engineering student Conner Weller, shown here, has helped found an organization that is using 3D printers to manufacture parts to make protective masks for essential workers. (Courtesy Connor Weller)
By Sherwin Francies For The Spokesman-Review

A Washington State University student has turned his passion for inventing things into an organization that utilizes a 3D printer to make face shields for health care workers.

Connor W. Weller, 21, was building a new company when the coronavirus pandemic hit. He’s now working for a nonprofit project from his home in Vancouver, Washington, to use the 3D printer to fashion masks for essential workers.

“I keep reading all these stories about how doctors and nurses don’t have protective equipment,” he said. “I just want to help out because I have resources that most people don’t have.”

Weller founded MakerForce, a nonprofit, grassroots emergency-response organization run with the help of individual makers.

He raised about $11,000 to cover the cost of manufacturing. The organization has more than 400 members contributing to the production, and they have delivered over 2,000 face shields in 11 days.

Raymond Combs, Weller’s advisor at WSU, said the student made a lasting impression.

“When I met him in Vancouver, he was a little bit of a mad scientist – unkempt hair, drives a car that I’m surprised is still running,” Combs said. “I see a lot of different inventor types, and he’s definitely a guy who wants to do it. He’s a doer.”

Throughout high school Weller worked for a company called 3D Hubs, which was a manufacturing network in which he used a 3D printer to make ordered parts.

“I’ve been interested in 3D printers since they first came out,” Weller said. “I finally got one of my own in high school. I love to make things, 3D printing was a new way to do that.”

Weller, who was studying mechanical engineering at WSU, even had a 3D printer that sat on his dorm room dresser in Pullman, said Weller’s girlfriend, Alix Olsen.

“Anytime he finds something annoying in life, he tries to fix it,” Olsen said. “He makes stuff for himself all the time.”

Weller will make anything to avoid having to pay for it, she said.

“I remember he 3D-printed a phone mount for his car,” Olsen said. “The first time, he used the wrong plastic and it melted because of the heat and dripped down the dashboard. He saw that as a learning experience and reprinted it using a different plastic.”

As a youth, Weller invented what his mother, Kari Weller, described as a “hoverboard.” He attached a shower curtain to plywood and inflated it with a leaf blower to raise it off the ground.

“He would take things apart and put them back together when he was 10 years old,” Kari Weller said.

So, when she couldn’t find a cookie-cutter shaped like the WSU Cougars logo, she asked Weller to make one. Kari Weller loved it so much she posted it on the “Die Hard Cougs” Facebook page. And, that started a successful business.

“We had so many orders coming in that I had to buy five more printers to keep up,” Weller said.

Now, he’s focused his attention toward helping end the shortage of protective masks. Combs, the supervisor, said Weller has tapped into a cottage industry of manufacturers using 3D printing to solve problems.

“It’s the best example of Americanism, all of us pitching in, that I’ve seen in a long time,” Combs said.

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