3D Printing Surgical Face Mask Extenders with the Taco Bros

Ryan Barone
April 21, 2020

Big Update, 5/21: The Taco Bros have been featured on TODAY! You can check out the segment, "Meet the middle schoolers using 3D printing to make PPE for first responders" right here, and then follow along with their instructions on how to 3D print your own mask extenders, which are posted below. Go, Taco Bros!


Have you heard of the Taco Bros? 

If you’re an iD Tech blog or social follower, you may remember us talking about Costa, a 12-year-old who attended iD Tech back in 2015 (and has returned every summer since).

Fast forward to 2019—this aspiring engineer wanted to do more, and in realizing that his school was missing its own robotics team, Costa started one with friends, dubbed them the Taco Bros, and led them to national champion status. 

“Our middle school didn't offer a robotics team last year. My experiences at iD inspired me to create one with my friends called the Taco Bros!”

Walking away with the Core Values Inspiration Award from the FIRST LEGO League Championships - which is given to the group of kids that is empowered by their FIRST LEGO League experience, and displays extraordinary enthusiasm and spirit - the Taco Bros story could have easily and happily ended there. 

But, it’s still going. And beginning the most impressive chapter yet—heading in a direction that is so incredibly needed at this point in time. 

3D printing for a cause

Costa and brother, Niko, are taking their award-winning “enthusiasm and spirit” to new heights, and using their summer-learned skills and 3D printer from camp to help hospital workers on the front lines who are putting their own health at stake to serve the sick. 

Specifically, the whole family is 3D printing surgical mask extenders to protect medical workers’ ears from irritation as a result of prolonged use and friction from mask elastic. 

They initially calculated that with 12 hours of printing, they could produce 24 mask extenders per day, with the brothers committed to physically pressing the button to do so every 28 minutes. Today, after tinkering with and maximizing the process, they've set a new daily production goal of 36 extenders! 

Skills + idea + compassion = change

Facing depleted resources, and really, more to endure before we reach the light at the end of the tunnel, you can bet that every single action, no matter how big or small makes a huge difference. 

This is a family that has literally spent days perfecting the printing process in order to maximize resources and impact. A single set of extenders would have been extremely helpful; 36 a day is huge. Printing for the foreseeable future is immense. 

Not to mention that their fortitude is inspiring others to follow suit—the iD Tech team is dedicating six employees to the same, with each person committed to printing as many extenders as possible for the next two weeks. 

And yes, there. Is. More. 

The Taco Bros have meticulously detailed the printer process for you and your kids to follow in order to help along with us all. 

Even if you end up only printing one extender, that’s one more that didn’t exist yesterday.

Ready to join us? Check out the detailed instructions provided below by the Taco Bros themselves, and click on the images for additional video support!

How to print surgical mask extenders

What you need to get started

(Monoprice Mini v1 was used, but instructions should be similar for other models.)

  • 3D printer
  • Everything in the box that comes with the printer
  • 3D printer filament – PLA 1.75mm/kg (filament provided is enough for a few prints)
  • microSD card reader (optional)
  • Tweezers
  • Scissors

Click above to watch video

How to set up the Monoprice Mini v1 printer

Your printer at home may already be set up, but we watched this Monoprice video on YouTube (which is for the Monoprice Mini v2, but it works the same way), and did the following:

1. Carefully unpack your 3D printer. Keep an eye out for the manual, as well as two accessory boxes. One box should have the power adaptor, and the other box should have the following:

  • AC power cord
  • USB cable
  • microSD card
  • Hex wrench
  • Filament spool holder
  • Plastic scraper

2. Find a level desk or table for the printer (choose a place where you can leave the printer set up for a while, but can easily check on printing from time to time). We decided to set our printer up in the kitchen so that the whole family could make sure we kept the printing going throughout the day.

3. Take all tape off the printer, and check to make sure there is no styrofoam left on the printer bed or nozzle or any other open areas of the printer.

4. Attach the spool holder to the left side of the printer.

5. Insert your microSD card on the right side of the printer—you will see two openings; the microSD card is the thinner and wider opening.

6. Plug the AC adaptor into the back of the printer.

7. Turn on your printer to make sure it works.  

8. Navigate to the “Move” setting on the printer screen and click on “Home." This will make your printer head and bed move to the home position. Turn off your printer.

9. Once you’ve turned off the printer, slide a piece of printer paper on the bed and under the nozzle, and make sure there is some slight tension under the nozzle in all four corners (you can move the bed and the nozzle by hand when the printer is off). If the tension seems off, you can always adjust the bed plate height a little by adjusting the screws in the four corners.

10. You’re all set to load filament to your printer and start printing.

Loading filament into your 3D printer

Click above to watch video

1. Find the end of your filament roll.

2. Take a pair of scissors and cut the end at a 45-degree angle so that the end is slanted.

3. Firmly press the tension tab down and push the filament through the round hole near the tension tab, and feed it through the tube until you feel pressure and you can’t push it anymore.

4. Turn on your printer, and from the home screen, navigate to “Temperature.” Set the temperature for your nozzle at 200, and the bed at 60, and then start the preheat. Click to go back to the main menu.

5. Navigate to “Move.”

6. Navigate to “Z-Axis.”

7. Lift up the Z-axis up by turning the button menu upwards.

8. Go back to the main “Move” menu screen and navigate to “Extruder.” Turn the menu button to the right to extrude some filament. (Sometimes this can take a few turns, just be patient.) Once you have seen some filament come out, you know the filament was fed into the printer correctly!

9. Clear away the filament that came out of the nozzle and make sure there is no filament blocking the nozzle. You’re now ready to start your first print!

Test printing

The Monoprice Mini comes with a microSD card that stores files to be used for 3D printing. Although 3D print designs are created in different programs and often saved as .STL files, in order to print on the 3D printer, your .STL files need to be converted to .GCODE files (we’ll explain how to do this further down).

We suggest running a test print on the printer before trying any other prints; this is easy to do.

The microSD provided with the printer has a “cat.gcode” file on it that prints a small 3D cat. This file is a good first test print. (Be patient, it might take as long as 2.5 hours.)

Once you’ve completed your first test print, and it looks like everything printed correctly, you’re ready to print other designs.

Slicing the .STL print file to print

Download the .STL file from the NIH 3D Print Exchange website directly, or from Thingiverse via the links below:  

These files were created for printing on printer beds that are larger than the Monoprice Mini, so keep in mind that when you prepare them for print, they will need to be adjusted in size to fit your own printer bed. (We were concerned they would be too small to work, but they still work.)

Once you’ve downloaded the file .STL file, you will need to “slice” it in order to create the .GCODE required for 3D printing.

To do this, you will need to download “slicing” software. We used Ultimaker Cura 4.5, so we’re going to refer to that program for our directions (but the concept should be the same no matter which program you use). For instance, Cura 4.6 is the current version. 

1. Download Cura and install it on your computer.  

2. When you open the program (on Mac or Windows) you will be asked to find your printer so that Cura can set itself up for your print bed dimensions.  

3. Choose Monoprice Mini v1.  

4. You will see a 3D print bed scaled to the same size as yours.

5. Open a project and select the .STL file you downloaded.

6. When the file opens in Cura, it will automatically be adjusted to fit your print bed.

7. You can adjust the file (you can place more than one on the bed or rotate the orientation, etc.) but you don’t need to make any adjustments to the file if you want to start printing right away. The file you opened is set to print just one ear saver with a raft. (For suggestions on how to print without a raft, and to print more than one at a time directly on the printer bed, see below.)

8. To print the file as is, look at the bottom right of your screen on Cura, and you will see a blue button that says “SLICE.” To create the .GCODE required to print on the 3D printer, you need to go ahead and select “SLICE.” When you do this, Cura will give you an estimated print time and an option to save your new .GCODE file. 

9. You can save your ready-to-print file to your desktop (and then print from your computer to the printer) or you can save the file to your microSD directly if your computer can read and copy to the microSD, and print directly off of the printer.

Printing off your microSD card

Click above to watch video

1. After you have followed the steps for slicing your 3D print file and creating your .GCODE, if you have saved your print file to the microSD, put your microSD into the printer.

2. Before you print, make sure your print bed is level. It took us a few days to figure this out. If you have a level at home, place it on top of the print bed and check to see if you need to adjust the print bed.

If you don’t have a level at home, you can place a ruler across the print bed. If you see gaps under the ruler or if the ruler seems to have space underneath it on one side or the other, then you need to adjust the bed.

3. Adjusting the bed is easy. You need to use the hex wrench included with the printer in the brown cardboard box to adjust the bed at the corners.

4. We also suggest taking a glue stick and applying a layer of glue with the glue stick on the printer bed. This helps the filament stick to the printer bed, especially if you are printing without a raft or brim.

5. Before you print, it’s best to preheat the printer.

6. Navigate to “Preheat” and preheat the nozzle to 200 and the bed to 60. These are the heat levels recommended for the ear savers.

Check your file in Cura, too. There are usually pre-set nozzle and bed heat settings—make sure they are consistent with your printer’s settings. Also, check the recommended heat level for your filament (it’s usually printed on the filament roll sticker).

7. Once you have set the preheat levels, select “Start Preheat” and then navigate back to the main printer menu.

8. You only have to wait a minute or two for the printer to start heating.

9. Navigate to “Print.”

10. Here you will see a list of all the .GCODE that is on your microSD card (your cat.gcode, the cat test print, should still be here too).

11. Select the mask extender/ear saver file you saved to the microSD card, and start printing.

Printing the ear savers

1. When opened in Cura, the ear saver files above are set to print with a raft. You can adjust this setting in Cura to print without a raft. Doing so saves a lot of filament, and also takes less time to print. To do this, change your “Build Plate Adhesion” settings in the print settings to “None.”

2. We first printed the ear savers with the raft because we didn’t know any better. Then we tried getting rid of the raft, but for some reason the filament was coming out too thin and the quality was awful. Then we figured out why this was happening...

You need to make sure that your printer nozzle isn't too close to the bed. If it is too close to the bed, when you go to print, you will not see any filament on the bed when printing, just slight traces (or sometimes not anything at all).

If your nozzle is too far away from the bed, then the filament will come out and your prints will look stringy, with pieces of the prints looking like spaghetti.

3. We suggest you print a single ear saver without a raft a couple of times to test the height of your bed. You may need to do a few tests before you get your bed height to be just right—this isn’t something that is an exact science; it just requires trial and error.

4. A single ear saver printed will take anywhere between 20-28 minutes depending on your settings. You can stop your printing in the middle of a print during your tests if you see the printer isn’t working properly.

5. In Cura, you will see that once you start printing, there is an option for adjusting the speed of the print. We have found that adjusting the speed on the Monoprice negatively affects the quality of the print because of the size of the nozzle (it is only a 0.4mm nozzle) and the maximum print settings of the printer. For this reason, we suggest that you just be patient and keep the speed at 1.0.

6. Once the print is finished, wait 3-5 minutes before you try to scrape it off the bed.  

7. Note that different kinds of filaments will print differently. We use a standard 1.75 PLA, and we have noticed different colors and different brands all have different looks and feels. This is something you need to learn with trial and error.

iD Tech note: Using other brand filaments may or may not work well, and switching could cause damage to the printer if not properly vetted.

8. When you are scraping filament off the bed, be careful. Let the prints cool 5 minutes or so before removing them. Sometimes, when we’ve had a hard time scraping things off, we have sprayed the bed with alcohol,  which helps soften the filament. On YouTube, some suggest using nail polish remover. DON’T. We tried that and it made marks on the bed and didn’t help.

9. A lot of people on YouTube also put painters tape on the bed to get prints off easily. We have been using the glue stick method, and it seems to work pretty well; but you should experiment and see what you like best.

10. Once you finish your first print and get it off the print bed, you are ready to print some more!

Printing directly from the computer

1. When printing directly from your computer, you need to have Cura open, and you need to be connected to your printer using the USB cable provided with the printer.

iD Tech note: At camp, we've found printing directly from SD cards to be more consistent. 

2. After you have followed the steps for slicing your 3D print file and creating your .GCODE, with the file open in Cura, look for the blue button on the bottom right of your screen. The blue button should say “Print via USB.” If it says “Save to File,” you can click on the drop-down arrow on the right side of the button and select “Print via USB.”

3. Click “Print via USB,” and your print job should start printing on your printer within 1-3 minutes.

4. If you have a way to save your print files directly on the microSD card, we found that this is usually faster—especially because if your printer goes to sleep, the print job can be interrupted.

Removing your 3D print from the print bed

Click above to watch video

1. One of the most important items included in the printer kit is the scraper. If you lose the original scraper that came with your printer, it’s OK. You can use a regular scraper used for painting. Just be careful not to scratch your print bed.

2. When scraping off the bed, take your time. Make sure to wait around 5 minutes for the prints to cool before scraping them off, or they will bend.

Printing more than one ear saver at a time

1. We know that waiting 28 minutes for one ear saver can feel like ages. We tried a lot of different print variations to see if we could speed up the process.

2. We started by printing one ear saver with a raft. We felt like this used a lot of filament, and we wanted to make the printing more efficient.

We then tried printing with a skirt, and we didn’t really see the skirt as being very useful.

In the end, once our printer bed was properly leveled, we were able to print the ear savers without any raft, skirt, or brim directly on the print bed. To do this, in Cura, in the "Print Settings" section for your file, under "Build Plate Adhesion," make sure to select “None” instead of selecting raft, brim, or skirt.

3. After we figured out how to print one ear saver correctly, we created a file in Cura with more than one. You can fit 5 slightly-downsized ear savers in one file in Cura; vertically or horizontally.

4. To print more than one, you right-click on the single ear saver in Cura, and you select "multiply," and then space them out on the printing area accordingly. If you place the ear savers outside the printing area, they will turn grey. Make sure to keep everything inside the printing area.

5. Once you’ve prepared your print file, slice the file and save the .GCODE and print.  

How’d you do?

How did everything turn out? Anything you found especially helpful? We’d love to see your tips - and extenders - in the comments, and on social media. (Use #iDTechStrongerTogether when sharing!)

A very special thank you again to Niko, Costa, and family for taking the time to put all of this together, and of course, doing their part in helping those on the medical front lines find comfort as they tend to the many in need—and inspiring many of us to do the same. 

P.S. Want your kids to keep building tech skills from home, right now? Try our small-group Virtual Tech Camps, complete with live instruction, social time with friends, and the same legendary iD traditions you know and love from camp. Or, learn more about our in-person experiences—3D printing camps and more. 

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