- Yes, 3D printing is being used to help in the pandemic
- The U.S. military, private companies, and other citizens are pitching in
- If interested, identify local efforts that are working with hospitals
With hospitals around the world facing detrimental shortages of medical items needed for treating COVID-19 patients, some engineers are turning to 3D printing to help produce supplies. In addition to ventilators, respirator valves and parts, hands-free door-handle attachments, and hand-sanitizer holders, 3D printing is also being used to manufacture face shields.
What are face shields?
Face shields—or, the ones currently being sought out by medical workers—consist of clear, curved plastic suspended in front of the wearer’s face by a headband. These are intended to be a secondary form of protection to be used in addition to a face mask, as face shields help stop bodily fluids and droplets from reaching the wearer’s eyes, nose, or mouth.
For engineer Mat Bowtell, the coronavirus outbreak meant pivoting his 3D-printing facility—located in a small warehouse on the coast of Victoria, Australia—which usually manufactures free prosthetic hands for children with a disability. Now, 14 of Bowtell’s 20 printers are currently being used to manufacture thousands of face shields for healthcare workers.
“With 3D printing, we’ve been able to go from making hands to making face shields in a matter of, well, days,” Bowtell told the Guardian in an interview published on April 4. “To completely revamp our line, that’s how agile this technology is and how flexible it is.”
“It’s mind-blowing,” he added.
This is just one of many instances of 3D printing being used around the world to produce these critical items. Stratasys 3D Printing & Additive Manufacturing, headquartered in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, pledged to 3D-print 5,000 full-face shields by March 27, which would then be provided for free to healthcare workers.
“We see additive manufacturing as an essential part of the response to the COVID-19 global epidemic,” said Stratasys CEO Yoav Zeif. “The strengths of 3D printing—be anywhere, print virtually anything, adapt on the fly—make it a capability for helping address shortages of parts related to shields, masks, and ventilators, among other things. Our workforce and partners are prepared to work around the clock to meet the need for 3D printers, materials, including biocompatible materials, and 3D-printed parts.”
3D printing your own face shield or face mask at home
Out of all the coronavirus supplies that can be manufactured by 3D printers, face shields are perhaps the easiest things hobbyists can produce right at home—either for personal use or to donate to hospitals. For those who already own a 3D printer for personal use, it’s recommended to identify local efforts that are working with hospitals to accept face shields.
Dr. Nathan Tykocki, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, told Wirecutter that group efforts are the quickest and easiest way to get these to hospitals, since a single printer may only be able to produce parts for 10 shields in 24 hours.
“3D printing is not the world’s fastest means of doing something, but when you get a lot of people together you can do a lot quickly,” Tykocki said. Going through an organization helps reduce the strain on hospitals, as it’s clearly more helpful to receive a box of 5,000 face shields, rather than a few here and there from individuals.
Another benefit of working with an organized effort is that you can ensure you’re producing the type of shield that hospital workers actually need. “We all want to make something that’s useful,” Tykocki said. “I don’t want to waste time and plastic making things that I think are useful that are actually not at all viable in the clinic.”