May 14 2020

In the Fight Against COVID-19, Some Tools Are 3D-Printed

Many in higher education are putting their 3D printers to work in the fight against the pandemic.

On college campuses nationwide, 3D printing has opened the floodgates of creativity, with students and faculty leveraging the technology for a range of educational uses in the years since the technology first came available. Now, with the healthcare industry facing critical supply shortages, higher education is elevating 3D printing from a creative endeavor to a potentially lifesaving one.

In recent weeks, faculty members at Northwestern University, for example, have fired up their high-speed printers to support first responders by churning out straps that hold plexiglass face shields in place. “The COVID-19 crisis has put a bright spotlight on the need for additive manufacturing,” says Northwestern chemistry professor Chad A. Mirkin. “We wanted to prove that this kind of 3D printing can make a difference, and we wanted to give back to the community.”

Northwestern is among the many colleges using 3D printing to produce protective gear on demand for medical workers. With many frontline healthcare personnel desperate for protective gear, the academic community. 

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A Nationwide Push To Print Safety Gear

At the University of Texas, they’re 3D-printing a valve that converts a snorkel mask into safety gear. Harrisburg University of Science & Technology is using the tech to make face shields for long-term care workers. And the College of Charleston is 3D-printing masks for healthcare workers.

At the Loyola Notre Dame Library, jointly operated by Notre Dame of Maryland University and Loyola University Maryland, technology librarian Matthew Treskon has been using three Dremel 3D Idea Builder printers to produce face shield components.

With the students at home, “these machines would have just been sitting in the library doing nothing,” Treskon says. “The university saw a critical need for this, and there is also just a general altruistic sense of wanting to help.”

The school has teamed with Baltimore makerspace Open Works to create the finished face shields, an example of the innovative new relationships that have developed as schools seek to fight the pandemic by sharing their intellectual fruits with the larger community.

At Northwestern, the team has been churning out 1,000 headbands a day using a high-speed 3D printer produced by Azul3D, a Northwestern startup. Mirkin says the urgent need for protective equipment has helped demonstrate the potential for emerging rapid versions of additive manufacturing.

“The great thing about 3D printing is you can make a lot of different things,” Mirkin says, “but they’re typically made very slowly. It’s usually like watching paint dry.” 

When several local hospitals called the school asking for assistance, Mirkin and others saw an ideal chance to show how 3D printing can work at scale. “Friends of mine are on the front lines in hospitals trying to save patients, putting themselves in harm’s way, and when they reached out asking about these capabilities, we saw that as an opportunity,” he says.

The university saw a critical need for this, and there is also just a general altruistic sense of wanting to help.”

Matthew Treskon Technology Librarian, Loyola Notre Dame Library

Learning to Clean 3D Printers On the Go

At the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, the COVID-19 support effort has been a learning experience.

The school jumped in early, leveraging its MakerGear M2 and MakerBot printers to create masks for healthcare workers. “Our frontline workers and healthcare providers are our own family, friends and neighbors. We are an engineering and science university. We want to use our expertise to support our community in this time of crisis,” says Mike Ray, a communications manager at the school. 

While the 3D printing worked flawlessly, the team learned that in a healthcare situation, there are always nuances. “Major concerns arose over the ability to clean them and to ensure proper fit for healthcare workers,” Ray explains.

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The school has since shifted away from mask printing to explore other ways it can support the fight. It is, for example, developing and testing a computer model to help predict the number of COVID-19 cases that might occur in any given community.

“As a science and engineering university, our entire curriculum is built around teaching students to help solve global problems,” says School of Mines president Jim Rankin. “We are very proud that our university has been able to step up and make a difference in our community and state.”

The 3D-printing push at schools around the nation has brought this sense of service to the forefront, highlighting the many ways in which academic technology investments can support the greater good.

“This crisis can be an opportunity for the universities to rethink their relationships with the community,” Treskon says. “In the future, if we can create more real-world learning experiences while also supporting the community, that’s a potential win-win for everybody.”

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At the very least, the academic community’s rapid implementation of 3D printing suggests that when time matters, old bureaucratic hurdles can be set aside. 

“Usually when you talk about mixing public and private activities, it becomes a legal nightmare,” Mirkin says. “In this case, everyone did the right thing and figured out a path forward to make it happen.”

“My father and mother used to talk about how the country came together in times of war,” Mirkin continues. “Some people go to war, while others provide the capability to support that effort. The situation here is very similar, and the university has proactively stepped up to ask how we can make a difference.”

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