Dusseldorf They are usually easy to manufacture, the cost of materials is low – and yet it is currently impossible for many hospitals and medical practices to get them: face shields and face masks have developed into permanently sold-out box office hits worldwide during the corona crisis.
The World Health Organization warned in February of the imminent shortage of medical protective equipment. The warning has become a reality in recent weeks. More and more companies now want to help alleviate the scarcity and switch their production to scarce medical goods.
3D printers play a crucial role across all industries. Because with the devices, customized products can be easily and inexpensively manufactured without modifications. That is why they are used by steel manufacturers like Thyssen-Krupp and Georgsmarienhütte, but also from car manufacturers such as VW or dental laboratories and design offices used for a wide variety of applications – and increasingly converted into emergency production facilities during the crisis.
“Many users are very creative with additive manufacturing at the moment,” observes Stefan Hollaender, Managing Director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at the US printer manufacturer Formlabs. His company has launched an initiative to deal with the corona crisis, which now includes 5000 devices from Formlabs customers from various industries.
“There are inquiries from companies that want to provide their freed-up printing capacities – and inquiries from hospitals and medical facilities that quickly need certain products for which the traditional manufacturing capacities are currently exhausted,” Hollaender explains the principle. Additive manufacturing shows its greatest strength during the corona crisis: flexibility.
Masks are printed based on a template
Because it only takes a digital model to produce a part with a 3D printer, industrial groups can change from a material manufacturer to a manufacturer of facial sights within minutes. For example, the steel cooker Georgsmarienhütte: On its own initiative, the company already started a few days ago to manufacture mounts for facial visors on 3D printers, which are usually used for mold making in the foundry industry.
“In the current situation, however, the printers are underutilized,” the company said on request. Last week, the Georgsmarienhütte delivered the first 50 visors to two care facilities in the region.
The design is kept as simple as possible: A plastic frame is printed based on a template that can be found hundreds of times on the Internet. The construction looks like a headband to which a plastic film can be attached like a document cover. This is intended to protect the face of the caregiver from flying viruses and thus reduce the risk of infection.
The steel manufacturer Thyssen-Krupp also produces similar visors. The Chemnitz site, which belongs to the automotive supply division of the Ruhr group, has developed its own design that also contains the Thyssen-Krupp logo. In Chemnitz, the group can print seven brackets a day, and another 40 a week are produced on the company’s 3D printers in Hagen.
While the use in this country is usually limited to simple, medically harmless protective equipment, other manufacturers in other European countries are breaking new ground. When urgently needed ventilator spare parts ran out in an Italian hospital in the particularly affected Lombardy a few weeks ago, a local 3D printing company called Isinnova stepped in – and simply printed the spare parts on their own devices within a few hours.
In collaboration with another facility, the same company also developed a device that can be used to convert diving masks into emergency respirators in a few seconds, which is also used in Italy. The sporting goods retailer Decathlon took part in the development – and provided design plans and dimensions of its diving masks for misuse.
“With many products, such as diving masks, there is the possibility of using them with minor changes for other purposes – such as masks for ventilators,” observes Stefan Hollaender from Formlabs. On a special Homepage the company provides many 3D plans. If you want to help, you just have to download it – and you are immediately available as a supplier of protective equipment.
Even though hardly any company is currently thinking of investing in a new printer, Hollaender expects that the crisis will have a positive long-term effect on 3D printing. “The pioneering spirit is currently very big,” says the manager. That will change the way companies think in the long term.
In addition, “Companies are thinking about how they can make their supply chains more resilient.” Because of their flexible application options, additive manufacturing is a means of choice for many companies if suppliers should fail. “I am currently experiencing this frequently in discussions with customers – even if investments in many industries are currently being postponed due to the pandemic.”
More: The South Hessian automotive supplier Sauer has also changed its production – and is now producing protective glasses instead of plastic parts for luxury cars using 3D printing.