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3D-printer companies build face shields, masks, more to fight coronavirus

HP, Carbon, Prusa Research and Formlabs are among those involved. Making face shields is simple. Making masks is tough.

Carbon's L1 3D printers can make products with a wide variety of properties, from hard plastic to squishy shock absorbing materials in shoes and helmets.

Carbon's L1 3D printers can make products with a wide variety of properties, from hard plastic to squishy shock absorbing materials in shoes and helmets.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The 3D-printing industry is accelerating its efforts to help fight the new coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. 

On Tuesday, HP announced it's working with those who bought its 3D printers to make medical face shields, hands-free door openers and an adjuster for face masks for medical staff who often must wear them for hours. It's also testing "hospital-grade" face masks meeting the higher-end FFP3 (filtering face piece) standard and parts for simple emergency ventilators. And it's looking into nasal swabs to test for COVID-19 infection. HP also is offering free downloads of its 3D-printed medical equipment designs.

Carbon, a startup whose 3D printers are used to make everything from bicycle seats to teeth straighteners, said it plans to send face shield designs to its network of customers who've bought its 3D printers. Carbon co-founder and Executive Chairman Joseph DeSimone said on Monday the company expects to send the designs by early Tuesday.

3D-printer makers typically sell their products to others that actually do the 3D printing. One such customer, Ford, said Tuesday that it's made 1,000 face shields and shipped them to Michigan hospitals, with plans to make 100,000 face shields a week. It also is working with 3M and General Electric on respirator masks and ventilator designs.

Carbon also is working on nasal swab designs that could be used for gathering samples to test for COVID-19. Although hospitals are testing its samples, that effort is in an earlier stage, said DeSimone, who handed the Carbon chief executive role to Ellen Kullman in 2019.

The effort is one of several to apply 3D-printing technology to the fight against coronavirus. 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, isn't as fast at churning out products as conventional mass production methods. But 3D printers are flexible and able to make many different parts anywhere there's a printer and raw materials like the plastic resins Carbon printers use.

"This is in many ways our moment for additive manufacturing," DeSimone said in a web conference with customers of Carbon 3D printers. "As earthquakes or hurricanes or pandemics disrupt supply chains ... distributed manufacturing is going to shine."

Some 3D-printing efforts have focused on ventilators, a type of medical equipment expected to be in short supply with a surge of COVID-19 patients suffering from respiratory problems. Also in short supply are N95 masks that can be useful in reducing the likelihood a wearer will spread COVID-19 to others.

Carbon's 3D printers could be relevant for making ventilator parts -- but for face masks, "it's not so obvious we can move quickly," he said. Most 3D printers today are best suited to making plastic parts, not cloth or filters used in face masks.

Based in Redwood City, California, Carbon is shut down except for medical work that's exempted under the state's shelter in place rule. "Everything has pivoted exclusively to a response to COVID-19," DeSimone said, including turning its testing site for new technology into a manufacturing facility. The company also gave its customers an extra 30 days to pay their bills.

Other 3D-printing efforts to combat the coronavirus

Formlabs, another 3D-printer maker, also is working on 3D-printed nasal swabs, Chief Product Officer Dávid Lakatos tweeted. Materialise, a Belgian 3D-printing company, has developed hands-free door openers already. And an Italian 3D-printer enthusiast made ventilator valves

There are other face shield efforts, too.

Prusa Research, a 3D-printer maker, donated 10,000 face shields to the Czech government and released a design others can use. A Liverpool, New York, couple has made dozens and released a design downloaded by others thousands of times, too. HP is now sharing that design on its website, too.

Carbon's DeSimone is cautious about the enthusiasm, though, saying that regulatory approval is important and that 3D-printer enthusiasts shouldn't be making components not intended for close human contact that might release unhealthy gases.

A Kaiser doctor tests a 3D-printed Carbon face shield. The 3D printer makes the frame and the transparent plastic is attached later.

A Kaiser doctor tests a 3D-printed Carbon face shield. The 3D printer makes the frame; the transparent plastic is attached later.


"The quality and regulatory oversight is critical," he said.

Carmakers, too

It's part of a remarkable transformation of manufacturing to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Among carmakers, General Motors is looking for ways to help ventilator manufacturer Ventec, and Ford is considering making its own. Fiat Chrysler plans to make face masks in China for the US market, too.

Face shields aren't as widely recognized a symbol for the world's medical supply shortage as face masks. But there's enormous demand, with hospitals contacting Carbon. One possible customer wants 25,000 face shields, he said.

"We cannot provide those all here," DeSimone said. "There's way more need than our community can supply, but I think we can make a dent."

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