3D printer appeal to help health care providers amid coronavirus pandemic

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A 3D printer makes a quiet whirring sound in a section of the St. Thomas Academy Innovation Center. That printer may just be saving lives.

“We’re printing these face shields parts as fast as we can,” said Center Director Mark Westlake. “We delivered our first set yesterday, to a nurse at Methodist Hospital.”

But this isn’t like the printer at your home or office. A 3D printer heats a plastic filament at a low temperature, then creates a pre-programmed shape on a heated surface.

“It places it onto a plate,” Westlake explains. “It puts down one layer and moves up, puts down another layer and moves up, keeps doing that over and over and over.”

He’s making the shields for health care providers, in the fight against COVID-19.

“The shield protects you from spray and droplets of bodily fluid, and preventing it from getting into your mouth, nose, and eyes,” said Doug Scott, a Massachusetts engineering teacher who’s teamed up with Westlake in the search for 3D printers and people who know how to use them.

“The shield is a really simple device we can put together, and that’s why we chose to do this as opposed to masks,” Scott said.

But making at least part of the face shields is a painfully slow process.

The shields themselves can be trimmed to size and ready to go in minutes using a laser cutter. But the plastic visors, made with the 3D printer, can take two hours to take shape.

Westlake says he can make about 20 a day, hardly enough to meet the need. Just yesterday, he delivered 15 masks to a St. Paul emergency clinic.

“I’ve been a little bit overwhelmed by the requests,” he said. “Everybody that we delivered to said when can we get more, or how soon can we get more?”

Westlake is hoping crowdsourcing will make a difference. Social media groups from Minneapolis, Boston, Phoenix and elsewhere are joining forces, searching for anyone with a 3D printer.

“People just keep gathering online,” Scott said. “We put it out there on twitter.”

Scott recalls a conversation a colleague had with a doctor from Cape Cod.

“How many do you need?” his colleague asked. “The doc said 60,000. Can we order 60,000?”

Scott says the COVID-19 crisis is putting pressure on medical professionals like never before.

Personal protective equipment, like masks, gowns, gloves and face shields are in short supply.

“We’re hearing it hasn’t happened since the Spanish flu, and you’re talking over 100 years,” Scott said. “So none of us in our lifetimes has seen anything like this."

Both men fervently hope people will come forward with 3D printers to join in the fight.

“We can’t produce the volume in the machines that we do have,” Scott said. “So the only way we can help is to really branch out and gather more people to help us do this.”

Westlake said some have reached by on Facebook and Twitter. Anyone who wants information can also reach him on his email: innovationcenter@cadets.com.

“If we can get more people that are willing to print, then we’re making a difference,” he said. “Even if there’s one doctor out there that has a little bit more personal protection, that’s a great feeling.”