There has always been a constant buzz around the fascinating idea behind 3D printing technology. From small scale to significant adoption, the 3D printing industry has stepped up. Although still considered less suited for producing large numbers of items, 3D printing has been proving to be a more agile and adaptable manufacturing method when it comes to creating Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) needed during the pandemic crisis.
The Rise of New Use-Cases
The growth of 3D printing in the last few years has introduced us to 3D printed garments that have debuted at fashion week (Iris van Herpen), 3D-printed creations showcased at graduation collections (Danit Peleg) and creatives like Julia Koerner designing 3D-printed costumes like the ones worn by Queen Ramonda in the movie Black Panther. Now with an urgent need for PPE, there has been a rise of new use-cases in 3D printing. Shifting into PPE manufacturing, the 3D printing industry is designing and producing critical parts to help medical personnel on the front lines. One of these companies is Hungarian 3D printer manufacturer CraftBot.
CraftBot, formerly Craftunique, was founded in 2014. The Budapest based company develops user-friendly, ‘plug and play’ 3D printers that respond to its customer’s needs. Offering a plethora of carefully designed features, Craftbot is working with partners to help protect front line workers globally. CraftBot has donated IDEX 3D printers to help produce face shields for essential workers, along with other equipment like door openers and ear protectors. Working from Rapid Local Manufacturing Centre (RLM) in Cornwall, UK, the space is also serving as an information hub where CraftBot will be showing how 3D printers are in use to manufacture PPE products. These demos show 3D printer owners how they can create PPE with their 3D printers, said CraftBot, in a press release. The announcement added that there would be a second RLM Centre also set up in Shropshire with an additional six 3D printers donated by CraftBot.
CraftBot is not the only 3D printing company that has become a PPE provider, pivoting from its usual services RapidMade has also recently shifted to producing emergency personal protective equipment to help fight the spread of COVID-19. The Portland-based 3D printing company uses 3D prototype printing technology to aid in the quick production of a changeable filter and reusable face mask. RapidMade’s manufacturing process combines 3D prototype printing technology with more traditional means so they can efficiently and quickly get the face covers to market.
RapidMade’s face masks are made from durable, rigid plastic with silicone seals that have built-in removable filters. According to RapidMade, the cover’s that they have designed incorporate a 3D printed filter cartridge assembly with a dual polyester/rayon and a melts blown polypropylene filter element.
On how they produced PPE masks, RapidMade President, Mark Eaton stated in a press release: “For the masks, we were able to leverage some open-source designs, and we used all our 3D printing and engineering knowhow to iterate the design quickly. But we soon realized that a vacuum-formed, lightweight plastic mask would cost less, be lighter, conform better to the face for a better fit and most importantly quickly ramp up to huge weekly volumes.”
Working under a quick deadline to get the masks to market quickly, RapidMade is currently manufacturing 2,000 masks, 5,000 filters, and 1,000 shields per week. On what drives them Micah Chaban, VP of Sales stated: “At first, we focused on supplying the local medical community with personal protective equipment but then realized that the need was much greater than that, so we expanded production to serve the public. We just want to help keep people safe so that we can overcome this together.”
3D Printing, The Challenges of ‘Wartime’ Production
Yes, there is no denying that it is fantastic that the 3D printing industry has pivoted to become PPE providers. Still, some complications come with this type of production. For example, some of the 3D-printed products in production for emergencies during COVID-19 are not endorsed. Even RapidFace has a legal disclaimer that states that their masks are not FDA-cleared. That being said, although there is currently no quality benchmark, there are guidelines on PPE manufacturing during the pandemic that have been developed by organizations like the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition.
Another problem is that 3D printing is extremely slow. It has been reported that it could take over an hour to print 3D-printed face shields on a conventional desktop 3D printer. “3D printing is this technology where on the face of it people envisage this kind of Star Trek replicator, where you press a button and something gets made out of nothing. This is not true – you have to understand the limitations,” explained Dr. Sam Pashneh-Tala to the BBC. The bioengineer at the University of Sheffield’s point is that if you compare the time it takes to 3D print PPE to using an “injection molding” process in a mass-producing factory, a process that will take mere seconds.
The good news is that the 3D printing industry has been mobilizing resources so they can face design challenges together and come with solutions. As PPE providers, they have successfully brought to the forefront innovations like Carbon’s Face Shield that can quickly be produced on industrial 3D printers and Weerg 3D printing Isinnova/FabLab Brescia emergency respirator mask valve to name a few.