Solving COVID-19 supply challenges with 3D printed face shields

A team of engineers on the South Coast of New South Wales has answered a call to make more equipment for medical staff dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, using 3D printers.
In an empty lecture theatre at the University of Wollongong campus, a local start-up company has set up a 3D print farm.
Forty machines, soon to be 140, are making face shields for frontline workers as part of the battle to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Me3D co-founder and engineer Matthew Connelly said the operation would ramp up quickly.
“At the moment we’re making hundreds a day, next week 500, and then 2,000 a day,” he said.
His company usually created and designed 3D printers for schools, but has swung into gear during the downturn after being asked to help.
“With the schools being shut down we’ve had quite a lot of stock left over, so one of the things we are doing with it is taking it out of storage and manufacturing some critical PPE [personal protective equipment] for our nurses and doctors,” Mr Connelly said.
Local health service puts in the order
The call for help came from surgeons who are leading the Illawarra’s coronavirus response.
Bruce Ashford is the Coordinator of the COVID Task Group at Wollongong Hospital and said because of existing networks and connections he knew he could call on the local IT experts for help.
“We floated the idea past the team at the University of Wollongong and TRICEP (Translational Research Initiative for Cell Engineering and Printing) and sure enough they were able to help,” Dr Ashford said.
“And we recognised pretty early on in the preparation phase for COVID-19 within the health service that face shields were a pretty critical part of PPE that was not going to be easily accessed for us.”
TRICEP director Professor Gordon Wallace said, because of the network around the university, they were able to start work quickly on a state-of-the-art design to meet health standards.
“We have been working closely with the area health service to define exactly what is needed,” he said.
“We have gone through a few iterations on the face shield to ensure that it can be used in practical situations.
“We worked to get the design right for manufacturability, comfort, and effective use in the health service and now we are ramping up production.
“At the same time, we needed to think about how we could make it in the shortest time period and use the least amount of material as possible, and that has allowed us to make the prototypes we are handing over.”
The engineers are printing the band for the top of the shield and finishing the assembly with a piece of plastic used for projector slides.
To meet the health service order, Mr Connelly said they were pushing their printers to the limit.
“Normally we are looking for a lot of detail and in this case we are looking to get it out as fast as we can,” he said.
The first 40 prototypes are being trialled by teams in Wollongong Hospital’s Emergency Department, Intensive Care Unit, and the intubation team in anaesthesia.
Doctors know the equipment will save lives
Dr Ashford said if PPE was not used correctly and resources were not in good supply people would get exposed to coronavirus.
“If we have one health care worker in Wollongong that is infected due to a lapse in PPE that will be a real disaster,” he said.
Co-founder Me3D and engineer Fletcher Thompson said it meant a lot for the teams involved to feel like they were contributing to the response.
“My sister is a final-year med student, I’ve got friends who are doctors on the frontline, and every day I see them putting in their best efforts facing the worst conditions they can face,” he said.
Planning to increase the capacity of ventilators
Mr Thompson said their next project would focus on components for ventilators.
“Simple T-pieces we can possibly print up, but it is pending approval from health authorities or the hospitals themselves. We want everything we do to be useful to clinicians,” he said.
“Anything out of the patient’s airway we can contribute … positive expiratory pressure valves, which are not super common, but have been used quite frequently worldwide to try and improve patient outcomes once they’ve gotten onto a respirator.”
Dr Ashford said the worldwide supply of ventilators and parts was incredibly constrained and there would be things not thought of yet that they would need, but may not be able to obtain.
“We are working hard to keep in front of the wave, but there are things we won’t be able to get, or the supply evaporates,” he said.
“I won’t be at all surprised if we are coming to the guys here at TRICEP and saying ‘We thought we could get hold of this bit of equipment but we can’t anymore … is it possible to look at some type of workaround?’.”

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