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Architects and engineers are 3D printing medical gear during pandemic

“We’re doing everything we can, and every single visor counts”

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Part of a 3D printed face shield sits on a 3D Printer
Part of a 3D printed face shield sits on a 3D Printer
Jenny Sabin, Jenny Sabin Studio

On college campuses, 3D printers have become emergency producers of masks, visors, and other protective gear as hospitals across the world face shortages. At Cornell University, production of visors began soon after Kirstin Petersen, an associate professor in the university’s Electrical and Computer Engineering department, received an urgent email asking for 3D-printed personal protective equipment (PPE) donations for Weill Cornell Medical Center, the university’s medical branch in New York City. 

“We reached out to everyone we knew with 3D printers and we grabbed all the 3D printers we could [from campus]...” Petersen says over the phone, “It really took off from there. Over the course of the sixty hours we’ve been working on this, we’ve multiplied from three volunteers to more than fifty volunteers, from five 3D printers to 106 3D printers.”

Visor parts being printed as part of the Cornell project
Visor parts being printed as part of the Cornell project
Sabin Lab/AAP Cornell

Production escalated quickly after the school’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning, which houses many of the university’s 3D printers, got involved, Petersen says. In an email to AAP students on Wednesday morning, associate dean, Jenny Sabin, announced that the college would be dedicating printers and resources to the cause and asked for those with 3D printers at home and extra filament left over from the semester to donate their time and materials to producing the visors, citing an estimated need of 50,000 visors a day in New York City. 

Facial shields have been incorporated into PPE for frontline healthcare workers as a precaution against respiratory droplets that transmit the virus. The shields being produced by Cornell faculty and students consist of a plastic visor piece that is worn across the forehead and a sheet of disposable polyethylene, which Sabin and her team have been laser cutting in the university’s digital fabrication lab.

Assembled face shields at Cornell.
Assembled face shields at Cornell.
Kurt Brosnan and Tyler Williams AAP Cornell/Jenny Sabin

Many students, caught within the strange limbo of a closed campus and a university transitioning to online instruction, volunteered to print the visor pieces from home. 

For Jesus Luna, a graduate student in the architecture department who has been crowdsourcing materials from his fellow students, 3D printing is a small way to combat the sense of helplessness incited by the pandemic, “These are trying times, we all should be trying to help in any way we can. It seems that our field [architecture] is not useful in this time of crisis, so doing what little I can feels necessary.”

“I’ve printed 15 visors today,” says Manying Chen, a fifth-year undergraduate architecture student, “Each one takes about 70 minutes, I’ve started doing it as soon as I wake up, it’s pretty easy.” Chen, who lives in Beijing, is one of many international students who have remained in Ithaca, unable to return to their home countries after the campus closed. 

The speed with which people around the world have been able to print visors is rooted in the open-source ethos of 3D printing, where makers are able to easily collaborate on and edit 3D files. This accessibility, however, has some worried about whether this informal PPE supply chain is turning out products that are good quality, and will keep health care workers safe. 

“Frankly, we can’t control what people are printing”

According to Petersen, the visors that are printed by Cornell faculty and students are from a 3D model file approved by medical professionals at Weill. The file itself, which was designed and released by 3Dverkstan, a Swedish 3D printing consultancy, has been downloaded over 10,000 times and is being used in over 20 countries, says Erik Cederberg, one of the designers behind the visor. 

“Quality control is a challenge,” Cederberg, who emphasizes that his design is a temporary fix, told The Verge, “From the start, we brought it to multiple people in the healthcare sector that we knew, including two hospitals in Stockholm, letting them try it out and getting some feedback. And we actually made some changes based off of that feedback before putting the design out in the world. Frankly, we can’t control what people are printing. But, we did make the model as simple as possible, so that it is very difficult to mess up. ”

“It has really come to the power of the people”

Petersen agrees that 3D-printed PPE is not a long term substitution, “We all can see that this is a terrible way of producing visors, there’re so many more efficient ways to be doing this. But I think like everyone else, we’re doing everything we can, and every single visor counts.”

As of Friday March 27, the group had donated and delivered almost 500 visors to healthcare workers in New York City. They estimate that as their ranks grow and as volunteers become more experienced they will be able to produce over 1,000 visors a day. Sabin, who is working to bring visor production to other universities is hopeful and encourages those who have the tools to join the initiative, “It has really come to the power of the people. One printer can’t do much, but it is through this sort of democratic process of making, with people from different disciplines coming together around an extremely difficult situation, that shows what can be done when people collaborate en masse.”

Correction 12:30 PM: A previous version of this article misspelled Kirstin Petersen’s name. It also misstated the item in the group’s estimate — they hope to one day produce over 1,000 visors a day, not masks. We regret the errors.