Parents of inquisitive children know that given enough time and repetition, a minor irritant can become a major irritant. At the beginning of a long trip, for example, are any four words more dreaded than: Are we there yet?
Anyone who has worn a surgical mask — the sort of protective facial covering that’s nearly ubiquitous in the coronavirus (COVID-19) era — knows that the elastic straps that fit behind the ears become minor irritants after a few minutes. After an eight-hour shift? Well, are we there yet?
In early March, a 12-year-old Boy Scout in Canada created a solution using his own 3D printer. The solution relieves the irritation of wearing a protective mask all day by taking the specific pressure of the elastic bands across the backs of the ears and spreading it out across the back of the head. The design went viral, and a few weeks later, Deere Manufacturing Engineer Spencer Marsh received his first request for the device, which Deere called an “ear-saver.”
“The original request came from a supervisor,” said Marsh, who oversees 3D printing in one of Deere’s three manufacturing facilities in Thibodaux, Louisiana. Factory work is difficult enough without the added annoyance of wearing an uncomfortable mask.
“Instead of just treating this like something we found on the internet, we took the same approach we’d use for one of our own products,” Marsh said. He and a few other engineers asked themselves “how we could make it more manufacturable. We got rid of unneeded material and we reduced the size a bit. Then we made dimensions for the multiple 3D printer models that we use. We were able to reduce the print time by about 30 percent.”
The engineers decided to make the ear-savers using polylactic acid, or PLA, which is a bioplastic whose ingredients include plant starch from corn, sugarcane, or sugar beets. Coincidentally, Deere’s Thibodaux plant manufactures the CH570 sugarcane harvester and is surrounded by sugarcane fields.
“We made about 200, with help of Deere employees 3D printing at home, and one of the ear‑savers from that initial batch made its way to our business improvement and logistics manager,” Marsh said. “She took it to her sister, who’s a nurse, and she tested it and thought it was worth its weight in gold.”
There was obviously a need for this simple, intuitive invention at Deere facilities as well as in the local health-care community. But Marsh wasn’t quite ready to start printing in bulk.
“We had received some feedback on our ear-saver from the nurses,” said Marlin Goodnight, manufacturing engineering supervisor. “They’d wanted a hole in the ear-saver they could slip their ponytails through.”
Marsh modified the original design, replacing a small rectangular cutout with a hole large enough to accommodate a ponytail. But he still wasn’t quite ready to print.
Although he now had an improved design in hand, Marsh faced one more hurdle — volume.
Goodnight recalled, “I presented the ear-saver to our internal Initial Response Team and the enterprise Emergency Response Team, and they immediately knew that we could do some good in the community. They asked me to team up with Spencer and see if we couldn’t figure out a way to print 500 of these for Deere employees and another 500 for our local healthcare workers.”
A home-model 3D printer can complete only a few ear-savers in an hour, and even an industrial-size 3D printer can produce just 10 in the same amount of time. To help produce enough ear-savers to meet the demand for local health‑care workers soon enough to be useful, Marsh put the call out to other Deere 3D printing hobbyists.
The Deere team was able to meet demand inside their own facilities as well as in the community. Early recipients include Baton Rouge General and the Thibodaux Surgery Center, as well as nearby Oshner Medical Centers. The team now is looking to offer help beyond the immediate region.
As use of the ear‑savers spread, Goodnight heard from nurses who described their “pure joy and excitement to have relief from raw ears and itchy heads. Some of them even took the time to call Deere employees to thank them personally.”
And not long ago, the project wouldn’t even have been possible.
“The thing I think is pretty cool is that 10 years ago, 3D printers were pretty rare outside the product development department or technology centers,” said Goodnight. “Now we have a group of about a dozen people who are just churning these things out at home.”
The Thibodaux factory is contributing more than the ear-savers to the effort to fight the coronavirus (COVID‑19) pandemic. Employees are producing and distributing 3,500 protective face shields to health-care professions in the community.
In factories and homes around the world, Deere employees are making extraordinary efforts to help keep as many people as possible safe and healthy throughout the pandemic.