3D Printing for COVID-19, Part Five: Face Shields and Masks

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As a hospitalist mentioned in a previous post on the efforts of 3D printing companies to address the coronavirus outbreak, some 3D printed parts may be safer and easier to deploy. 3D printed valves and respirator parts require greater safety considerations “due to the risk of contagion,” something that may be more easily adhered to by companies with greater resources that are participating in the support effort. However, the doctor suggested that “3D-printed face shields […] will definitely be needed.”

Face Shields

Palestenian-Canadian emergency physician Dr. Tarek Loubani has been an important actor in the use of 3D printing for emergency response. Dr. Loubani first developed 3D printed stethoscopes for deployment in Gaza to circumvent the Israeli blockade of the Palestinian land. Not only could the stethoscopes be printed for $0.30, compared to $200 for traditional counterparts, but they could be made using open source RepRap printers built within Gaza. 

Dr. Loubani has continued to develop printable emergency supplies, including a tourniquet that was used during the Palestinian Nakba protests that began in 2018. Most recently, he has supplied his skills to the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak by creating a modification of a face mask that is being used in the Emergency Department of the London Health Sciences Centre in Canada. 

A face mask 3D printed by Dr. Tarek Loubani. Image courtesy of Tarek Loubani.

The face shield is made up of a mount, printed on a desktop plastic extrusion machine, to which a Mylar sheet and elastic band can be attached. The device protects medical staff that might be exposed to air particles that spread the coronavirus. As of March 19, 2020, Loubani had printed and assembled 200 masks. Since then, numerous other parties have developed and printed their own versions of 3D printable face shield holders. 

Among those who are assembling similar face shields using 3D printed parts are HP, Ford, Stratasys, Carbon and Alphabet (Google’s parent company). Ford is aiming to produce 100,000 face shields weekly and is testing 1,000 shields at several hospitals in Michigan. HP is in the process of finalizing designs for a face mask adjuster and face shield brackets and has already produced over 1,000 parts for hospitals to use. With Alphabet subsidiary Verily, which is developing the COVID-19 online screening software Project Baseline, Carbon has designed and printed a face shield bracket that is already being tested at Stanford Hospital and with Kaiser Permanente.

Notably, smaller companies are now supplying face shields for medical workers. Budmen Industries, in Pennsylvania, has suspended all sales and production operations as it deploys all of its desktop 3D printers to manufacture face shields for local hospitals. 

Spanish 3D printer manufacturer BCN3D has used its farm of 63 machines to print parts to assemble 400 masks for over 10 local hospitals, with plans to make 2,000 more in the coming days. BCN3D’s masks have met the safety criteria according to the hospital’s needs, which means that they can be reused after disinfection. The company is part of a larger group of Spanish parties, dubbed 3DCovid19.tech, which is working to address medical supply shortages in the region. We will cover this coalition and others in an upcoming article. 

3D printing startup Origin is also attempting to contribute to the effort throughout the design of face shields with 3D printed parts and a “hospital-grade” N95 filter attachment. A transparency film from a three-hole punch binder is being tested as a possible disposable frontal shield. They are currently being tested by the Stanford University School of Medicine. The company is hoping to make the device ANSI z87.1 compliant. Other parts being designed and tested include test swabs and sterilizable respirator components. 

Face Masks and Respirators

While the safety issues associated with a simple visor are most likely easier to overcome, some firms are designing 3D printable masks and respirators whose safety is much more questionable. Italy’s WASP, for instance, has developed a customizable face mask that is meant to be 3D printed out of biocompatible polycaprolactone (PCL) material with a replaceable filter. The mask is meant to be tailored to the wearer’s face using smartphone photogrammetry. 

Additionally, the company has designed a helmet with “positive air flow protection”, in which fresh air is carried in through the top of the mask and a fan powered by a 12V battery circulates the air. Both devices are being used internally at the moment and are not certified, but their files are open source and instructions to create them are available online. 

Similarly, filament manufacturer Copper3D has developed a 3D printable face mask meant to fill the need for N95 masks currently in short supply. The open source NanoHack mask can be printed in about two hours. Most importantly, it is meant to be 3D printed using the firm’s copper filament, due to the fact that copper has been considered an effective material for killing bacteria and viruses, including a precursor to COVID-19, coronavirus 229E. Chile’s Copper3D, in particular, focuses on an antimicrobial filament that is an FDA Registered Material and EU compliant (No. 10/2011, No. 1935/2004 and No. 2023/2006).

Many of WASP’s projects have focused on genuinely benevolent causes, such as providing housing to the homeless and working with sustainable materials. Fortunately, the company is not yet deploying its devices in a clinical setting because their safety would have to be validated before getting put into use. As our ER doctor mentioned in a previous article, “the shape, texture and porosity of the materials used are important, so we would probably only use a 3D-printed version that has been tested and proven to be equally effective and safe.” 

Of course, the ongoing pandemic is creating many emergency scenarios globally, so some protection could be useful when none are available. However, if 3D printable face masks with invisible pores and questionable strength are being used, they could potentially act as harbingers of disease. Even cleaning with alcohol, soap and water may not be able to kill the germs within these pores. One can imagine medical staff printing masks without knowing these facts about 3D-printed parts and carrying the disease. 

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