People Around the World Are 3D-Printing Face Shields to Battle the Coronavirus

An informal network of thousands of printers is emerging to provide critical medical supplies

Photo courtesy of Ian Charnas

OnOn March 18, Michael Perina’s five-year-old son was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia and trouble breathing. Perina wasn’t allowed to see his son, who had been brought to the intensive care unit and was being tested for the coronavirus.

“It was basically, ‘What do I do at this point?’” says Perina, who runs a 3D-printing shop in Staten Island, New York. As he waited for results, he sought out ways to help. After seeing reports of massive shortages of personal protective equipment plaguing medical professionals, he decided to start printing face shields—transparent disposable full-face masks that help block transmission of the coronavirus.

“Instead of just sitting here doing nothing and feeling helpless, I can get the machines running and do something that would help the cause,” he says. Perina launched a GoFundMe, raising nearly $10,000 for printing materials. Perina says he is now equipped to produce up to 4,000 shields per day.

Medical facilities in the United States are facing a dire shortage of face shields, N95 masks, and other personal protective equipment, as states literally bid against each other to procure the nation’s dwindling supply. Face shields aren’t perfect, and they aren’t a replacement for a proper N95 mask, but they act as a physical barrier that can protect health care workers’ faces from external fluids. While conventional manufacturers scramble to ramp up production, independent 3D printers around the world are stepping up to meet the demand, creating an international network of DIY manufacturing.

Perina and many of the 3D printers manufacturing shields around the world are using a design developed by Josef Průša, founder of a Czech 3D-printer company called Prusa. The same day Perina’s son was admitted to the hospital, Průša uploaded a file to his 3D-printer company’s website that would allow anyone with a 3D printer to make a face shield.

Průša’s team of nearly 500 employees are currently operating more than 500 printers to manufacture 10,000 face shields for the Czech Ministry of Health. But Průša’s design has traveled way beyond the Czech Republic’s border. In the United States, hundreds of 3D printers are now using his design to manufacture tens of thousands of shields. According to Prusa’s website, the face shield design has been downloaded more than 40,000 times.

Perina, whose son tested negative for the coronavirus, is now working with another local 3D-printing shop to set up an additional 65 printers, which he says will allow them to manufacture 150,000 masks per month — still a drop in the bucket relative to an estimated monthly demand of 25 million shields in New York City alone. Each shield costs about $1 to print. Perina says he is in talks with local businesses about additional funding for the project.

Perina says the printed shields will go to local hospitals, including Staten Island University Hospital, which currently uses 1,000 masks per week. He is currently in conversation with the hospital to make sure the shields meet the facility’s standards. If Perina can scale to produce even more shields, he says he plans to offer them to a government organization to distribute the shields more effectively.

Budmen says demand for 3D-printed masks is exploding — as are the offers to help.

A group of engineering teachers and students in North Carolina has also raised more than $52,000 to print Průša’s face shields. Using 3D printers at the Charlotte Latin School and University of North Carolina, Charlotte, the group hopes to manufacture 10,000 shields and recently delivered the first 40 shields to Atrium Health’s Bone Marrow Transplant Unit in Charlotte, according to the group’s GoFundMe page.

Ian Charnas, co-founder of Sears think[box] at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, started researching face shield designs that his university innovation lab could help manufacture. He found that the most common 3D-printing materials would make the masks difficult to disinfect. So he modified the Prusa design to be injection-molded, a more traditional form of manufacturing. He found a plastics manufacturer in Erie, Pennsylvania, that can produce 5,000 shields per day that can be sanitized and reused. Charnas is in talks with local hospitals and is now waiting for clearance to produce the shields.

In Liverpool, New York, Isaac Budmen and Stephanie Keefe, who make custom 3D printers as Budmen Industries, have started to supply their county’s coronavirus testing site with face shields built from their own original design, downloadable on their website.

Budmen tells OneZero that each mask takes about an hour to print, and they are currently running 16 printers around the clock to produce as many masks as possible.

Budmen says demand for 3D-printed masks is exploding — as are offers to help. The company has received more than 200 inquiries from people with 3D printers who want to provide assistance and more than 40 medical organizations looking for shields. Budmen now has two volunteers matching hospitals and medical professionals to local printers who are willing to help out.

In Toledo, Ohio, another local 3D-printing shop has completely pivoted to making masks. Ryan Lawecki, owner of RMC Gaming in Toledo, is using his company’s eight printers to make 50 to 60 shields a day. He is setting up four more printers and will soon deliver his first 100 masks to ProMedica Toledo Hospital.

Thousands of other printers are on standby. A Google Sheet with more than 4,000 names with contact information of those with 3D printers who are willing to print medical tools is being shared on social media.

Lawecki and Budmen say that anyone who wants to print shields for their local hospital should contact the hospital first to assess their needs and find out whether it’s willing to accept donations.

Local efforts obviously won’t solve the global supply chain crisis. But each local, small-scale effort can potentially offer some help in a time of need.

“The beautiful thing about a 3D printer is that it can make one or 100,” Budmen says. “But we are not medical experts. Up until last week, I was a 3D-printer manufacturer.”

Want to help? Here are instructions for printing your own face masks.

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.

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