May 5, 2020

Researchers are increasingly learning that one of the reasons that COVID-19’s spread is so powerful is because of its airborne potential. As such, the ability for doctors and frontline healthcare workers to use masks and face shields to protect themselves and their patients from the illness is crucial to stopping the spread. Additive manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing are helping keep doctors and their patients safe in the face of high demand and short supply — one mask at a time.

Technologists are employing innovative 3D printing technologies that produce masks and shields at a faster rate than some traditional manufacturing procedures.

IEEE Member Samantha Snabes is one of those technologists, working with healthcare providers in Austin and Houston in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

“Providers need this equipment now, and additive manufacturing has stepped in to fill the gap as production scales up through distributed manufacturing around hospitals,” says Snabes. “We are energized and inspired by the mass mobilization of 3D printing to tackle COVID-19 head-on by providing protective gear to medical personnel, medical equipment to aid victims and filling gaps in supply chains.”

Additive manufacturing designs and produces products using computer-aided design software or 3D object scanners. Traditional manufacturing typically carves or shapes an already existing material called injection molding, while additive manufacturing layers geometric shapes with precision until the object is created.

“3D printing is ideal to bridge short-term supply gaps, because it allows for on-demand manufacturing, rapid changes and customizations to address the needs of different doctors, hospitals, and personal protection equipment users around the country,” says Snabes. “As changing requirements and changing realities make it difficult to only use one single solution, 3D printing offers mass customization for the same or similar costs per unit. As many platforms are modular or open-source, if used for in-house or on-demand manufacturing, they provide the ability to be quickly modified to support production requirements.”

Snabes stresses that all 3D-printed pieces for face shields have been vetted by healthcare professionals, and the engineers are only creating solutions that have been specifically requested. But that doesn’t mean the engineers and designers aren’t getting creative with their designs.

“3D printed designs are uniquely able to customize to supplies on hand,” says Snabes. “People are getting really creative, especially since stock of clear plastic sheeting is hard to come by. Creative designers are coming up with solutions that use sheet protectors, for instance, as the visor for the face shields.”

See also Lessons Learned by NYC Makers Producing Personal Protective Equipment for Medics

Another benefit to 3D printing face shields is their sterilization potential. While the research is still limited, Snabes has learned that a face shield band printing with durable plastic called Polyethylene terephthalate, may be able to withstand sterilization upwards of 10 times. Being able to clean and reuse masks more frequently means that doctors can continue to save lives while the supply demand levels out.

Looking forward, Snabes predicts this will not be the last time additive manufacturing will be needed or utilized to support emergency situations.

“There may be a push for more distributed manufacturing tools, operators and raw materials globally so that when it makes sense, additive manufacturing can satisfy short-term gaps in critical supplies that can’t be met by injection molding,” says Snabes.

In the meantime, we are thankful for the engineers who are overseeing and developing 3D printing technologies that keep our healthcare professionals safe during this demanding time.

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