3D printer owners are ‘waiting for the call’

Printers could be used to make face shields out of recycled materials.

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3D printers could be called into action to help provide equipment for healthcare workers. - Courtesy Chuck Noonan

Islanders who might normally use their 3D printers as educational tools or hobbyhorses are ready to help the public in any way they can.

Chuck Noonan is one of those folks, who is experienced in 3D printing and has a printer of his own. 

Some conjecture has surfaced on social media speculating that 3D printers are able to create respirators for hospitals and emergency personnel that meet the necessary filtration levels and sanitary specifications outlined by major health organizations.

But Noonan said that, unfortunately, that is not necessarily the case. “Open source printing is a pretty loose group on the Island,” Noonan said. “We can’t really make masks that can be form-fitting, or can be fully sanitized for reuse.”

According to Noonan, respirators used by frontline workers must be form-fitted to the individual’s face so as not to allow any leakage that might compromise the efficacy of the filtration system. They must also be regularly sterilized in an autoclave that uses heat to kill harmful microbes, which would melt the polylactic acid (PLA) filaments that common 3D printers use.

And the final products made by 3D printers are inherently porous because of the microscopic cracks in between the layers of polymer, which would not serve as adequate protection for our healthcare workers. 

“There’s no one out there who can manufacture up to the specifications of medical professionals,” Noonan said.

When a 3D printer prints, it layers superheated plastic polymers on top of one another to create an object or a material. 

A special copper filament that has antimicrobial properties would be the closest thing to medical grade, but Noonan said these filament spools are “proprietary, expensive, and out of stock.”

Although Noonan said he would be willing to manufacture whatever items medical personnel need to the best of his ability, there are no plans in place between 3D printer owners and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, according to hospital spokesperson Katrina Delgadillo.

Instead of printing respirators that would most likely not meet the stringent requirements of medical professionals, Noonan said he and several other 3D printer enthusiasts are prepared to manufacture adjustable headbands that would serve as components in face shields.

In the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) list of personal protective equipment (PPE), face shields are noted as being helpful in protecting the entire face from airborne droplets, and in preventing potentially infected people from coughing or sneezing onto people or surfaces. 

The shield itself, Noonan said, could be fashioned by cutting soda bottles, plastic binders and notebooks, or any plastic that is thick enough to block airborne droplets, and large enough to cover the entire face.

According to Noonan, the concept of 3D printing necessary protective equipment was “very exciting” to printer enthusiasts, but he said that people are slowing down and strongly considering what is safe. “At first, it was go go go, but we don’t want to endanger people with what we think is a solution,” Noonan said. 

Each headband, according to Noonan, takes around three to four hours to print, with some of that time including assembly. 

And there are many precautions that need to be taken if the masks are to be utilized by members of the public who are at high risk, such as grocery store employees and others who operate essential businesses. 

“People are going to need to build these things with gloves, put them in a sterile bag, and make sure that they are completely sanitary before we give them to anyone,” Noonan said. 

As the situation evolves rapidly and the number of confirmed cases continues to grow, Noonan said he and others will be at the ready as a last resort if someone makes a request.

“We are ready to do whatever it takes to support the community. There are so many smart and capable people who are willing to help, but we hope it doesn’t come to that,” he said.

Another 3D printer owner, and science teacher at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Louis Hall, said there are a number of inherent issues with printing any type of medical device or protective equipment.

He said that if you want to make a product more durable, it takes more time and more filament to create. 

“Print time is affected by fill percentage. Do you want this piece of plastic to be completely solid? Or is it all right for it to have some small pores and imperfections?” Hall said. 

Because of the time it takes to create just one face shield headband or other apparatus, having just one or two printers manufacturing protective equipment for an entire Island is out of the question, Hall said.

But a major coordinated effort among all the Island’s 3D printer enthusiasts, in Hall’s opinion, could make a significant difference.

“In the absence of N95 masks, something is better than nothing, and there are people here who are offering their time to help the community,” Hall said.