Monday 13 April 2020 3:37 pm

Firms rush to 3D print face masks to meet NHS PPE demand

Amid a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep frontline NHS staff safe in the ongoing coronavirus crisis, hospitals have turned to the 3D printer community for vital safety gear.

The UK’s 3D printing firms and the wider 3D printing community have had orders for hundreds of thousands of PPE gear, such as face masks, amid accusations some hospitals’ supply is dangerously low.

Doctors and nurses and other frontline NHS workers must wear protective eye gear, face masks, aprons and gloves to treat people infected with coronavirus.

The government has insisted there is enough of this “precious resource” to meet demand and it will resupply hospitals daily from next week.

But a community of 3D printer owners has sprung up to take hospital orders for such equipment.

3DCrowd UK, a crowdsourced initiative to produce PPE, has now registered more than 6,000 3D printer owners keen to help.

The group, set up by palliative medicine doctor James Coxon, is dispatching 39,000 face shields over the Easter weekend. But so far they have already had requests for more than 500,000.

And across the UK, firms large and small are banding together to turn their skills to building PPE.

Alex Gibson, the founder of Reading-based 3D printing startup Edumaker, has gathered 3D printers from numerous local businesses to answer the call for PPE.

“Watching the situation in China for the last six weeks and seeing shortages of PPE, I had the realisation we have the capacity to spin up and produce anything,” Gibson tells City A.M.

When Gibson posted on a local engineering web forum asking for volunteers, Matthew Richards, a product manager at networking giant Cisco, responded.

“My company is used to scaling up to large print projects. We have a lot of printers and it’s fairly easy for us to spin up. Matthew within Cisco was able to provide the space we needed to set up immediately,” Gibson adds.

Local firms donated 11 3D printers to kick start the operation. And in under a day, Gibson’s staff and volunteers from Cisco had set up a 24/7 operation that saw them build face shields constantly across three shifts per day.

“There are marketing people, sales people, there are some engineers all helping build kit and man shifts,” Cisco’s head of corporate social responsibility, Kathryn Baddeley, says.

“We have a crew of fantastic volunteers working 24/7 shifts, making the laser cuts to physical components, putting them in antistatic bags so the doctors can open them,” Gibson adds.

“The support from the local business community has been incredible.”

So far Gibson has shipped almost 1,000 face masks to various local health providers.

“Orders are flying in via email and they’re coming in from all different health providers at the moment,” Baddeley explains. “We have got more orders than we can fulfill at the moment.”

Recipients of these orders include Royal Berkshire Hospital Primary Care Trust.

However, the face shields Edumaker and 3DCrowd UK are making are not the face masks NHS staff appear to be short of.

“Doctors are very short of FFP3 face masks they really need to block the virus,” Gibson explains.

While there are many 3D printable face mask designs, Edumaker opted for the only one that has approval so far, in the Czech Republic.

“That’s utterly crucial because we wanted to make sure what we were doing had approval,” Gibson says.

While Edumaker and Cisco have had a GP from a local clinical group come in to inspect the face shields, they have not heard back from NHS bodies on design approval inside the UK.

Medical equipment regulator MHRA has guidelines for producing such kit during the pandemic, but there seems to be no official guidance on 3D printed PPE for health workers.

However, 3D printing volunteers like Gibson are taking precautionary measures to keep the environment as clean as possible.

Cisco has brought in a washing machine to clean the protective gear volunteers wear, while there are strict limits on what volunteers can take into the area the masks are produced in.