SINGAPORE: Kendrick Tay had just completed his masters and was due to apply to be an airforce pilot. But his plans had to be put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You know, eat already nothing to do,” the 27-year-old joked in Chinese.
Feeling restless, the SUTD graduate was scrolling Facebook when he noticed several schoolmates 3-D printing ear guards - a plastic tension release band worn at the back of the head, designed to hold the elastic straps of surgical masks and bring relief from discomfort around the ears.
“They were printing them in their own capacity and sending them to friends who were working in healthcare,” he said.
“I thought that’s a useful product because healthcare workers who wear surgical masks the entire day will face ear abrasion, especially if the strap is too tight.”
However, Mr Tay felt that more could be done if the printing was done in a “coordinated fashion”. He saw this as an opportunity to bring the ‘makers’ of Singapore together - those who are interested in making their own things and have the tools to do so.
“We are equipped with the skills and equipment, but sometimes it may not be a habit to extend help to others. But this can be a way to get the ball rolling, for this community to give back.”
About two weeks ago, Mr Tay gathered three other SUTD alumni and started a Facebook group called SG Makers Against COVID-19. They posted in other community groups calling for makers who own 3D printers at home and would like to volunteer to produce ear guards.
As of last weekend, the group had grown to about 100 makers - extending beyond SUTD students and graduates - ready to provide their hands and tools for service.
Its motto? To produce items and solutions that will help the fight against COVID-19.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
The process of making a ‘ear saver’ - as the group now calls it - is relatively simple. First, feed a digital file to the printer and it will melt plastic filament, which is then extruded from cartridges to form layers and layers of plastic, forming the product.
It takes about two hours to print five to eight pieces, said Mr Tay. The only challenge the group faced initially was funding materials and transporting them to the makers.
With the makers contributing their printers and time, Ms Lorraine Teo, the assistant director for Industry Development & Collaboration at SUTD, joined the group to help with procurement of filament.
It was the willingness of the makers community and the kindness of others that gave her confidence in the project, said Ms Teo.
“One roll of filament would typically cost about S$38, but when the supplier I spoke to knew what we were doing, he reduced the price,” said Ms Teo.
The supplier, Mr Shafiq Ali, said he was already 3D printing the ear guards before the group was formed. He gave them out to his friends who are working as nurses and medical social workers.
“When the group started, I thought I could do more - I can give them the material at the best possible price, so that we can get more guards out there,” he said. The 32-year-old runs a 3D printing company, Meka 3D Printing.
Even though he saw a “50 per cent drop of business” in this circuit breaker period, Mr Shafiq felt it was important to support the project.
“The makers have always supported us in our business and what we do and a lot of these guys are our friends. We didn't really do anything, we just provided what we could.”
Another private hire driver who learned about the project also offered to transport materials from the supplier to the makers for free.
“I was really very touched, especially since private hire drivers are already badly affected right now,” said Ms Teo, who was prepared to pay all material and transport costs out of her own pocket.
“It started small but everyone just kept giving.”
Meanwhile, the makers have been focusing on perfecting the design of the ear guard. Their starting point was a design that has been approved by The National Institutes of Health (NIH) of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but the group received feedback that it is “too large”.
“You end up having to cut the excess off, if not it will stick out at the sides of your head,” said Mr Tay. “40 per cent of the material is wasted so we remixed the design to create a Singapore version that is smaller and uses less material.”
The current design is 85 per cent of the original size, which allows printing to be quicker and more efficient.
COORDINATING WITH HOSPITALS
While the volunteers are ready to start up their machines, the group is still reaching out to local hospitals to determine the demand for the ear guard. Ms Lee Siew Yian, who is in charge of liasing with hospitals, said that several of them have expressed interest and the group has already sent samples over.
The samples are currently made by 25 makers but once the hospitals ascertain their need and official volume, more makers will get to work.
“Everyone can’t wait to get started,” said Ms Lee. “People are really eager to do something.”
For now, SingHealth has agreed to receive the donations after testing the samples and they are “very appreciative” of the efforts.
“These innovative ear guards can help tighten face masks, and reduce some of the pain behind one’s ears that may arise from prolonged periods of wearing face masks,” said Mr Tan Jack Thian, Group Chief Operating Officer of SingHealth.
“As we continue in our fight against COVID-19, we hope that this will help make the long hours of mask-wearing more comfortable for our healthcare professionals."
The makers will be sending about 10,000 ear guards to SingHealth for a start, but they hope to go beyond hospitals and healthcare workers. The group foresees other groups of Singaporeans, such as those in essential services, who would find the ‘ear savers’ useful as well.
“The hawker that I frequent was already wearing tissues behind his ears,” Ms Teo noticed.
The group launched a fundraiser, in hopes of raising S$35,000 to cover the materials and logistics of producing more ear guards.
"We are looking to raise $1 for each ear saver," the group wrote on its giving.asia page.
"We would like to give these ear savers to essential workers such as cleaners, drivers, delivery staff, cashiers, and food stall owners ... we hope to make a total of 35,000 ear savers."
The makers will also continue to gather feedback to further improve the product.
Mr Tay said one feedback they got was that the ear guards are not compatible for N95 masks, as the straps go around the head.
“Especially when you are in full Personal Protective Equipment, you can’t adjust the straps of the mask after you put it on. It may shift over time and it gets uncomfortable,” he explained. “We hope to design a new product to fix that.”
“I’m not a frontline or essential worker but I think there’s so many things we can do to help them,” said Ms Lee. “We want this project to be by Singapore, for Singapore.”