3D printers rally to manufacture personal protective equipment

Lin Rice
IC3D Printers and others are making face shields and other PPE.

Columbus’ maker community has been stepping up to get health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic the protection they desperately need.

IC3D Printers has been organizing others in the community that can manufacture PPE components via 3D printing, says Chief Mischief Officer Kimberly Gibson. The company, which makes printer filament and prints components primarily used in the automotive and adjacent industries, switched production in its West Side facility to face shields and masks and is looking into designs for masks, respirators and potentially ventilators.

“We’ve been trying to get ahead of it and organize the full community, so that’s what we’re doing in Ohio and elsewhere, serving as an organizing hub in our sphere of influence,” Gibson says. “We’re figuring out printer capacity in our area, determining what groups and organizations have printers and are able to help, and [trying] to get everyone together as one to push out these materials.”

As of March 28, several dozen Central Ohio organizations were working together, totaling 50 to 75 3D printers, and that the numbers are continuing to grow, says IC3D founder and CEO Michael Cao. One 3D printer can manufacture about 16 face shields a day, he says.

“Our two goals the past few weeks have been to do everything we can in terms of leveraging Columbus’ skills and resources to help society,” he says. “The other goal is to just keep our business afloat and take care of the employees we’re responsible for, so striking the balance of providing what we can at cost, which will at least allow us to keep the lights on.”

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Luke Howard, STEAM teacher for middle school at Columbus Academy, said the school’s 13 printers are in use printing shields’ headbands.

“We’re able to finish those and drop them off at the curb, and IC3D finishes assembling them,” Howard says. “It’s all about the scale. I know IC3D and everyone is pumped up because a lot of people want to help, but with just one printer it doesn’t go far. But when you get everyone working together, it makes a much bigger impact.”

Completed PPE is going to the VA Central Ohio Healthcare System, whose innovation team shepherded the design for VA hospitals nationwide. More items are being produced for other Central Ohio hospitals and caregivers as the need increases, Gibson says.

The design is open source and available on the National Institutes of Health’s online portal. Downloadable open source designs are also available on IC3D’s website, along with request forms for those in need of PPE, those with 3D printers who want to volunteer and those wishing to donate.

The group has partnered with United Way of Central Ohio to collect donations to help the maker group buy materials in bulk and increase its printing capacity, Cao says. More information can be found on the nonprofit’s website and at hashtag #3DprintingbattlingCOVID.

Gibson says next steps include identifying an easy sterilization option for the devices so they can be disinfected before being sent into hospitals, saving health care workers time. 

“We’re working with our suppliers, but we’re looking for expertise from someone who can offer a quick solution for that,” she says, 

IC3D has a drop-off bin outside its facility at 1697 Westbelt Drive where makers can drop off printed parts to be sterilized and assembled.

“If this effort saves even one nurse who saves many people, it’ll all be worth it,” Cao says.

Fitness equipment manufacturer and distributor Rogue Fitness has also repositioned to begin crafting PPE for those in need. Headquartered in Columbus, the company has supplied 20,000 face masks and 500 face shields since March 24. Rogue has posted instructions on its website for others to copy and fabricate.

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“We have taken our product development team and moved 100 percent of their focus to the items needed by the medical community,” says Director of Technology and Systems Rico Martinez. “Our sewing designer and team have already begun sewing prototypes of various materials, including our T-shirts. Our supply chain team is focusing on sourcing the raw materials, and as we find finished items we are delivering that to the front lines. We are also making smaller shipments to folks that are reaching out to us at the United Way, homeless shelters and drug rehab facilities.”

Rogue is working closely with OhioHealth and the state of Ohio to make sure they are making what’s needed and what can be accepted. “If we end up with extra beyond that, we will move to the next closest need,” Martinez says. “We are sharing open source exactly what we are doing, so if it’s successful, it can be replicated.”

The company started by 3D printing and hand cutting parts for face shields, but is now ramping up to injection molding to produce 10,000 a day, Martinez says.

“We are also ramping up our supply chain sourcing efforts, having our buying team source finished masks, gowns face shields. We are hoping those numbers begin hitting 50,000 a day soon,” he says.

Lin Rice is a freelance writer.