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How Additive Manufacturing Assisted in the Fight Against Covid-19

The onset of coronavirus has fundamentally changed the way we live. At the beginning of the crisis, it was feared that the NHS may not have the capacity to cope with the surge in demand and that items of personal protective equipment (PPE), vital in the protection of health care professionals from contracting and transmitting the virus, were in short supply. It became apparent that existing supply-chains and production lines of equipment such as N92 masks; face shields; scrubs and gloves could not adapt quickly enough to meet demand; therefore, a rapid response was required.

Designers and engineers worldwide pulled together to design and manufacture equipment vital in the fight against Covid-19. Additive manufacturing technologies have been at the forefront of this rapid response; negation of the need for setting up production lines means that manufacturing can start with immediate effect. Here at ITERATE, we offer a range of 3D printing technologies and our design engineers have vast expertise in additive manufacturing. Keen to help the situation in any way we could, we decided to put this to good use.

Face shields are one of the key items of PPE required by health care workers. They consist of transparent visors covering the face and neck retained by a strap or headband to hold them in place. Like a mask, they give protection against the inhalation of microscopic droplets projected during conversation, sneezing and coughing, the main mechanisms of the virus’ transmission. However, unlike masks, they also protect against droplets entering the eyes and generally stop the user from touching their face, so we decided that our expertise and capacity could be best put to use in the production of 3D printed face shields.

Our experience in the medical/healthcare sector has taught us that regulations and production standards are often the main barrier to entry and in this scenario, a rapid response was crucial. In order to provide a rapid response, we decided to adapt an existing, qualified face shield design. Prusa, world renowned 3D printing specialists, published an open-source face shield developed and qualified in conjunction with healthcare professionals and government ministers. We decided to adopt this design as a starting point since it would allow us to assure compliance and reduce time to market. We applied our design expertise to develop elements of this design to better suit our additive manufacturing processes for greater printing and fabrication efficiency.

Initially, we produced a run of 50 face shields in an attempt to engage NHS supply chains; we provided documentation about the design, manufacturing processes and sterilisation procedures but our offer was unfortunately declined due to a presumed lack of additive manufacturing capacity.

It soon emerged that the care sector, where the virus was particularly virulent, was suffering severe shortages of PPE due to the slow government response, resulting in outbreaks in care homes across the country. Deeply concerned, we reached out to local care and nursing homes and quickly received several responses. We got to work, producing shields around the clock at full 3D printing capacity, manufacturing up to 30 shields per day.

We have since been humbled to receive overwhelmingly positive feedback from the care homes; many noted that they found the range of vibrant colours uplifting. As a company, we are glad to have been able to play a small part in fighting Covid-19 and supporting our local healthcare heroes whose hard work, day-in day-out, we are indebted to.

We have since been working on projects with the Welsh Government helping to make the next step in PPE supply by designing equipment suitable for mass-manufacture, ensuring that our healthcare workers have adequate PPE over the coming months.