7 3D Printing and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Printing PPE

COVID-19, the global pandemic which at the time of writing needs no introduction, is one of the most pressing “wicked problems” we face. Today, headlines are dominated by stories of vaccine supply and potential side effects, but only a few months ago, news stories focused on worldwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

In response to the onset of the pandemic and PPE shortages, a number of 3D printable designs became available on online repositories such as thingiverse.com. The items ranged from hands-free door openers to face masks, face shields, and even emergency replacement parts for ventilators.

Face Shields and “Ear Savers”

Prusa Printers’ face shield design

One of the most widely publicised printing efforts was spearheaded by Prusa Printers, a company which was part of the original RepRap printer project. Prusa worked in conjunction with the Czech Ministry of Health to design a face shield to be worn over an N95 face mask to prolong its use. Those designs were then made open source and anyone with a 3D printer was encouraged to assist in printing and distributing the shields.

Importantly, because the files were open, users could make adjustments and modifications to the designs based on feedback from medical staff and printing restrictions. For example, one modified model featured a wider forehead area to improve comfort while another shortened the same part to reduce printing time. Additionally, the Prusa online forum was used as a resource for individuals with printers to discuss settings and sterilisation tips, and find healthcare workers in need of PPE.

3D Printed "ear savers" to improve comfort of masks.
3D Printed “ear savers” to improve comfort of masks.

Another popular model of which many versions are available online is an ‘ear saver’ to be worn with masks. It is a piece of plastic with catches on it designed to go behind the head and hold the loops of a face mask to take pressure off healthcare workers’ ears.

These two items were ideally suited to 3D printing because they were to be used in conjunction with additional protective equipment. Home and hobbyist printers are not and cannot be expected to produce medical devices to the same standard as large manufacturing companies, but could nevertheless make a positive impact at a time when supply chains failed.

Risks

The below excerpt from an article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health highlights one of the applications of 3D printing to adapt snorkel masks as rapid response PPE to the pandemic as well as some of the concerns associated with it. In the study, masks were tested with 3D adaptors to mount regular bacterial-viral ventilator filters when available, or with snorkel openings covered with N95/FFP2 cloth.

Creative thinking resulted in the adaptation of commercially available snorkel masks for use as full-face protection devices in [a medical] setting…

The theoretical advantages of using such masks instead of an assembly of oro-nasal protection mask and protective goggles, are ease of use, reusability, and possibly better wearer comfort. Possible disadvantages could be insufficient protection level, increased work of breathing, carbon dioxide (CO2) accumulation, reduced communication, fogging of the face shield.

Even though no formal evaluation has been done of these masks and various types of adaptations, makeshift or more professional, the use of these masks in hospital emergency wards and intensive care wards has already spread widely, at least in certain countries or regions. Concerns about the actual protection level offered by these masks and the risk of carbon dioxide (CO2) accumulation while wearing them for extended periods made us perform a systematic testing of various brands, in order to verify whether they are as safe and effective as claimed.[1]

The study ultimately determined “3D printed adaptors are safer, have more flexibility and reliability than makeshift adaptations.”[2]

In response to an emergency, 3D printing can serve as an effective stopgap solution. However, as the above excerpt highlights, effective testing of 3D printed items is nonetheless imperative.

Further Reading & Viewing

Evaluation of Protection Level, Respiratory Safety, and Practical Aspects of Commercially Available Snorkel Masks as Personal Protection Devices Against Aerosolized Contaminants and SARS-CoV2

Article: The “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2″ (SARS-CoV2) pandemic has led to a worldwide shortage of personal protection devices (PPD) for medical and paramedical personnel. Adaptation of commercially available snorkel masks to serve as full face masks has been proposed. Even not formally approved as PPD, they are publicized on social media as suitable for this use. Concerns about actual protection levels and risk of carbon dioxide (CO2) accumulation while wearing them for extended periods made us perform a systematic testing of various brands, in order to verify whether they are as safe and effective as claimed.

How 3D Printing and social media tackles the PPE shortage during Covid-`19 pandemic

Article: During the recent Covid-19 pandemic, additive Technology and Social Media were used to tackle the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment. A literature review and a social media listening software were employed to explore the number of the users referring to specific keywords related to 3D printing and PPE. Additionally, the QALY model was recruited to highlight the importance of the PPE usage. More than 7 billion users used the keyword covid or similar in the web while mainly Twitter and Facebook were used as a world platform for PPE designs distribution through individuals and more than 100 different 3D printable PPE designs were developed.

Frugal Innovation in a Crisis: the digital fabrication maker response to COVID-19

Article: The rapid spread of COVID‐19 has led to a global shortfall in essential items, turning many countries into resource‐constrained environments. In response, an unprecedented number of do‐it‐yourself hobbyists (i.e. makers) have started to use digital fabrication tools to produce critical items. These bottom‐up communities are mobilising as part of a global movement to produce innovative solutions to much‐needed items, such as face masks, face shields and ventilators. This study advances knowledge on how frugal innovation unfolds in the Maker movement. It is among one of the first studies to connect the domains of makers and frugal innovation, and the paper concludes by identifying several promising areas for further research.


  1. Germonpre, Peter, Van Rompaey, Dirk, and Balestra, Costantino. “Evaluation of Protection Level, Respiratory Safety, and Practical Aspects of Commercially Available Snorkel Masks as Personal Protection Devices Against Aerosolized Contaminants and SARS-CoV2.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17.12 (2020): 4347. Web.
  2. Germonpre, Peter, Van Rompaey, Dirk, and Balestra, Costantino. “Evaluation of Protection Level, Respiratory Safety, and Practical Aspects of Commercially Available Snorkel Masks as Personal Protection Devices Against Aerosolized Contaminants and SARS-CoV2.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17.12 (2020): 4347. Web.

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Designing the Digital World by NUI Galway is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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