As the global coronavirus pandemic grinds on, nurses, doctors, paramedics and other healthcare professionals continue to sound the alarm about the dire shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to prevent frontline workers from being infected. It’s gotten so bad that we are regularly hearing stories of healthcare workers reusing gowns and masks, or even crafting their own to cope with the shortage.
To meet the growing demand, some companies are stepping up to the proverbial plate by readapting their production lines and retooling manufacturing equipment to make more life-saving gear for hospital workers.
Based out of Spain, Nagami Design is one such startup that has switched over from 3D printing high-end designer furniture to making plastic face shields. Resembling something like a transparent welder’s helmet, this particular piece of equipment protects the wearer’s face from coming into direct contact with airborne droplets expelled during an infected patient’s sneezing or coughing.
Thanks to the types of non-porous plastic materials used, experts say that face shields are relatively easier for smaller companies like Nagami to manufacture compared to face masks and that by adding this extra layer of protection, users can also extend the life of their face masks.
“This is an external mask that offers a first protective layer, and is not a replacement for [standard face mask] equipment in any case,” as Manuel Jimenez Garcia, Nagami’s CEO and co-founder, explained to us. “The hospitals we are serving in Spain did not have any similar equipment, and some were already creating some DIY versions themselves. Since it is not in direct contact with their eyes or mouth, it just needs to be sterilized prior to use. This equipment is also stopping hospital workers from touching their faces with their hands.”
Based on an open source design that was then readapted for Nagami’s 3D printing robotic arm, the company’s face shield design features two plastic interleaved bands: one that attaches over the wearer’s face using an elastic strap, and can be adjusted as needed; and another plastic band into which a clear protective plastic sheet can secured.
According to the company, the face shields are 3D printed using a robotic arm that has been outfitted with a specialized extruders developed by Nagami. Through a layer-by-layer printing process called fused deposition modeling (FDM), a type of durable, chemical-resistant, thermoplastic material (polyethylene terephthalate glycol or PETG) is deposited and laid down, one layer at a time, to form a three-dimensional object.
“By printing them with a robot we deposit thicker layers of plastic than in a conventional desktop FDM 3D printer,” said Jimenez Garcia. “This allows us to print seven times faster, reducing printing time to five minutes per mask, rather than the average 35-40 minutes. [PETG] has a 91% transparency in its natural state, it’s very much like glass. It is 100% recyclable without losing any properties, meaning it can be recycled and repurposed indefinitely.”
The company’s robotic arm printer and customized extruders accelerate the printing process significantly, enabling them to print up to 500 masks per day.
“We normally use our robots to 3D print large size pieces, as that is the main goal of the company: large-scale 3D printing made accessible,” added Jimenez Garcia. “We had to develop new thinner nozzles for our plastic extruders to print thinner, and recalculate strings to avoid overheating in our servo motors for printing such small parts.”
For the time being, the company is quickly producing and delivering face shields in their immediate region around the city of Ávila, with plans in the works to scale up distribution to the rest of the country — hopefully in coordination with other companies looking to pitch in with their expertise. Jimenez Garcia admits that scaling up will present a logistical challenge, but the silver lining is that 3D printing is certainly living up to its promise, not only rapidly manufacturing face shields in different localities, but also vital components for ventilators.
“This is really proving 3D printing at its best,” said Jimenez Garcia. “We have been discussing for a decade now about the advantages of 3D printing: establishing a very short production chain and allowing distributed manufacturing, hence reducing shipping and CO2 emissions massively. This project is showing how 3D printing technology can respond quickly to problems that truly matter and emergency situations that spread around the entire world, using the ability to create any shape in a record timeframe. We now realize the importance of 3D printing and its versatility in our planet, and I hope it will soon become a much more robust and accessible technology with an easy access from any part of the globe.”
See more over at Nagami Design.
Images: Nagami Design