By Poornima Apte, Contributor
Until recently, Simon Seagrave had been using his personal 3D printer to print miscellaneous items like a toy Millennium falcon for his 6-year-old son.
Then came COVID-19.
Seagrave, director of the Dell Technologies demo team, started using his 3D printer in a very different way: He produced face shields for healthcare workers on the frontlines. (Editor’s note: As of press time, Seagrave has switched to printing face masks with N95 filters.)
The PPE Shortage
In early March, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) “are leaving doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers dangerously ill-equipped to care for COVID-19 patients.”
While exact numbers vary every day, the pandemic has revealed a shortage of PPE such as gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, gowns, and aprons. Given that medical personnel depend on PPE to protect themselves from infection and to ensure that the virus is contained, such shortages present a dire challenge to treatment and containment of COVID-19.
To meet demand, the WHO suggested that PPE manufacturers would have to increase production by 40 percent to hit global needs. Until they do, hobbyists such as Seagrave have been filling in the void by producing PPE.
The Face Shield as Stopgap PPE
While masks might seem like the most obvious candidates to 3D print, it’s not an easily reproducible proposition for hobbyists. “As of yet, it’s unclear if 3D printing offers an effective solution for masks because there are a lot of issues relating to fit for different face sizes, and then you also need the filtering media that can’t be 3D printed,” says Peter Zelinski, editor-in-chief of the trade magazine Additive Manufacturing.
High-quality filtering masks such as the N95—named because it filters 95 percent of airborne particles—have to pass stringent requirements set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As a result, face shields have been the entry point for 3D-printing enthusiasts like Seagrave. “It’s easier to 3D print the face shield because there’s no particular FDA limitation on that,” Zelinski says.
The face shield consists of two parts: a 3D printed visor that wraps around the forehead and a clear plastic shield that is cut out of transparent plastic. While a face shield is not effective on its own, it provides an additional barrier against coughs, sneezes, or other body-fluid contamination.
“It’s all a very organic and grassroots effort. There are manufacturers and also hobbyists getting involved in the action [to make 3D printed masks and shields].”
—Peter Zelinski, editor-in-chief, Additive Manufacturing
Determined to help the cause in the best way he could, Seagrave decided to start printing face shields using an open-source design published by the National Institutes of Health. He has bought a second printer specifically for this purpose and now prints seven to eight face shields a day out of his home in Westborough, Massachusetts.
People like Seagrave are part of a national movement to use 3D printing as a stopgap measure to address the PPE shortage. “It’s all a very organic and grassroots effort,” Zelinski says. “There are manufacturers and also hobbyists getting involved in the action,” he adds.
On the other side of the country in San Francisco, Maxwell Andrews, distinguished member of technical staff at Dell Technologies, also got involved in the action.
Andrews heard of the efforts to address the PPE shortage through Helpful Engineering, a volunteer group of engineers, scientists, and doctors around the world committed to helping fight the pandemic. He decided he would chip in by leveraging his tool of choice: a laser cutter.
Having bought a laser cutter to indulge his hobby, Andrews designed a face shield file for laser output. After a few prototypes, Andrews designed an entire face shield that would be laser cut out of plastic and, because it was an origami pattern, could fold flat for easy shipping and storage in medical facilities. Andrews and others from the Helpful Engineering group swung into action producing the origami version of the face shield. Andrews produced 300 face shields a day. He no longer produces them, however the Helpful Engineering Group is working with a company that produces more than 50,000 a day.
Wild West Production and Distribution
While these scattered groups of hobbyists geared into action producing face shields, the question of how to get them to medical workers remained a lingering challenge.
Distribution efforts have thus far been piecemeal, Zelinski says. “Currently it feels a bit of a Wild West situation. There’s no national organized effort to gather and distribute 3D printed PPE, though this might change any day,” Zelinski says. In some cases, there was direct networking between medical facilities and these “makers,” in others there were not. “At least initially the distribution varied region by region with a hospital system connecting with maker communities on one level or another,” Zelinski says.
Indeed Seagrave has been delivering most of the shield components he produces to an area maker-space, The Makery in Brookline, Massachusetts. The Makery collects such units from other makers as well, then assembles the shields and delivers to regional New England healthcare facilities.
Andrews and other nearby makers have been supplying two hospitals in California: Alta Bates and UCSF Children’s. His origami design has since been adopted by Garlock, a die-cutting manufacturer in Rochester, New York, which has been producing the shields to address the shortage. Garlock scheduled a first run of 500,000 with more planned afterwards.
Zelinski points out that 3D printing’s strength lies in its ability to go from design to execution really quickly. “You can just get a CAD model and go,” he points out.
But long term, he sees other high-volume manufacturing kicking in to fill in the gaps. “It will pass the baton to more production scale additive manufacturing and, from there, the baton goes to machining and production, mold-making, the kind of processes that do high volumes really effectively,” Zelinski says. In a sense this may or may not be 3D printing’s moment. “It’s really visible and there’s a lot of activity going on but conventional processes still offer the best hope [for the volumes we need],” Zelinski says.
Zelinski has been impressed, however, by the heartfelt and fast response to the PPE shortage. “3D printing was that explosive sprinter straight out of the gate,” he says. Andrews and Seagrave feel they’re doing their part to help in an all-consuming crisis. “I was feeling helpless and I wanted to look around and see how I could help. This is one small way,” Seagrave says.
Andrews agrees, adding that the Helpful Engineering group welcomes donations. “Even if you can’t meet the long-term scale demands, you can help right away. If it’s a drop in the bucket it matters—I always say an ocean is a bucket full of individual raindrops.”