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Hospitals Lack PPE. The 3D Printing Community Is Working to Pick Up the Slack

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Jared Murnan holds a 3D printed face shield at Moddler, a 3D printing shop in San Francisco, on April 8, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping the world, hospitals have been scrambling to acquire enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to allow workers to care for those who've contracted the disease, without contracting it themselves.

As traditional manufacturers struggle to produce PPE fast enough, tech companies and members of the 3D printing community have stepped up to create the supplies desperately needed by doctors and nurses.

For the uninitiated, 3D printers can create objects from a digital file by stacking layers of material on top of each other until the design is finished.

In the interest of helping out first responders, small-time manufacturers and at-home printers have been sharing open-source designs online to help meet the need for PPE. But that desire to help isn't without limitations. Many items that hospitals need — like N95 masks or nasal swabs — have complex designs and have to go through an approvals and sterilization process before they can be shipped out to hospitals.

But some items are easier to get through the process than others, like face shields.

Face shields being 3D printed at Moddler in San Francisco on April 8, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Jared Murnan, director of operations at San Francisco's Moddler, a service-based 3D printing company, said he was wondering how the company could contribute to the PPE effort when officials with UCSF reached out for help.

"One of the people we talked to was almost in tears, explaining the situation and how dire it was," said Murnan.

Since then, Murnan and his colleagues have been working with UCSF to create a face shield design that workers could use. As of April 7, the design has been approved by the hospital, and Murnan said they're now in contact with Sutter and Kaiser to get the design approved there.

One roadblock Murnan said he and his more small-time colleagues encounter is capacity.

Jared Murnan pauses the 3D printing machine at Moddler in San Francisco on April 8, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"Most people have ... one to 10 machines. Most people don't have a fleet bigger than that unless they're a company that actually makes the printers themselves," said Murnan. "And so this is going to be a collective thing. Where we're only going to be one piece of the puzzle."

And some large companies have stepped up to meet that need.

HP, which manufactures the HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer, has several 3D printing centers with capacity — more than 100 systems — in Spain, Oregon and California. To meet the global need for PPE, the company has teamed up with its partners and customers to widely manufacture it.

"Basically what we're doing is working with partners and customers, but also internally ... to come up with these designs, make them available, use our own capacity, actually reach out to some of our customers and partners and use their capacity for their local areas and provide parts to the medical industry," said Tim Weber, HP's global head for 3D metals.


So far, Weber said HP and its affiliates have delivered tens of thousands of parts to hospitals and service providers across the world.

One of those partners is Oakland-based FATHOM, which has been working to create face shields, masks, ventilators and nasal swabs for COVID-19 test kits.

Rich Stump, the co-founder of FATHOM, says they're currently partnering with multiple different stakeholders — including experts at HP, Harvard, Stanford and Lawrence Livermore National Labs — to get the swabs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and then put into production.

"We've been driving the swabs from Livermore to Stanford, getting feedback and changing the design very quickly to try to get this into production," said Stump.

FATHOM is currently leveraging those bigger partners to try to find medical companies who can help get the 3D printed swabs "sterilized, packaged and [then] get them out with their test kits."

Stump said they hope to get the swabs into production over the next week.

So far, the PPE printed by FATHOM has been delivered to several different organizations, including the Alameda County Fire Department.

And some of the designs they've made are rather surprising. Stump said the company has partnered with Dolphin Scuba Center in Sacramento to convert scuba masks into PPE.

FATHOM, in partnership with Dolphin Scuba, is manufacturing adaptors that attach filters to scuba masks, allowing them to be repurposed by medical personnel who need PPE. (Courtesy of Dolphin Scuba)

According to HP's Weber, that kind of innovation and quick turnaround is one of the highlights of 3D printing.

"The power of 3D is you can design and react very quickly and go straight into digital manufacturing," said Weber. But he also notes that the dynamic nature of the pandemic requires a flexible response. "We will do what we can to help as this thing evolves on us."

For Moddler's Jared Murnan, he said having a way to contribute and help people get through this pandemic has helped him process what's happening.

"There was a significant call to action and then there's a little bit of a game plan moving forward," said Murnan. He said having something to do "feels rewarding and like we're doing something to help."

If you have a 3D printer and want to get involved, you can find the design for Moddler's face shield here. They plan to add the updated face shield design to their website once they have approval from Sutter and Kaiser.

You can find HP's designs here. Hospitals can also make printing requests or requests for new designs.

If you have manufacturing capacity, or would like to request PPE from FATHOM, you can sign up here.

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