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3D Printing PPE For Medical Professionals Fighting COVID-19

May 04, 2020

Coronavirus is highly contagious and as of now, there is no vaccine available to treat it. Professionals working in hospitals and laboratories spend the majority of their days exposed directly to COVID-19. Personal protective equipment, also known as PPE, is meant to protect them from the virus. Unfortunately, with the shortage in multiple forms of PPE (such as face masks and face shields), both laboratory and medical professionals do not have a way of protecting themselves while they help those who contracted the virus.


How Can 3D Printing Help the PPE Shortage?

In these times, 3D printed PPE can act as a temporary solution to the shortage until medical and laboratory professionals receive the protection they desperately need. 3D printing is fast and can produce models similar to some of the medical equipment needed to give at least some level of protection to those battling Coronavirus. Open source guides of medical personal protective equipment are available to those learning about 3D printing PPE (Response Guide, Local Response Guide). The CDC and FDA are allowing medical and laboratory professionals to use 3D printed PPE during the shortage. However, the 3D printed supplies must meet certain safety standards (FDA and CDC). 3D printed PPE can not have any leaks, including in the seals. Additionally, professionals must first be able to confirm that they can breathe through the 3D printed materials before use.


PETG, PLA and TPU/TPE Filaments

PETG, PLA, and TPU/TPE filaments each possess unique characteristics that make them potentially more suitable than other plastics for addressing the COVID-19 PPE shortage while simultaneously fulfilling CDC and FDA safety requirements.

PETG is a flexible, durable, and chemically inert plastic. Its combination of flexibility and strength allow PETG to hold a shape without breaking. It will not react to chemicals, which is ideal for a hospital or laboratory environment. Finally, PETG is fairly easy plastic to print.

PLA is a popular plastic in the 3D printing community. Two benefits of PLA is that it is easy to use and it will not warp. One negative of PLA is that it is inflexible, which limits its use in 3D printed PPE. This means that PLA can be used to create some of the shapes required in personal protective equipment, but not all.

TPU/TPE is a plastic that is already in use for 3d printed medical devices. Depending on the brand, TPU/TPE texture can resemble rubber. Two main benefits of TPU/TPE are high flexibility and durability. However, its flexibility makes it difficult for TPU/TPE to hold a shape or keep a seal for certain medical supplies.


What PPE Can be 3D Printed?

It is important to know that not every kind of PPE can be produced on a 3D printer. The only forms of personal protective equipment that are currently 3D printed are face masks, face shields, and connectors. Technically it is possible to 3D print goggles, but it is not common to do so yet.



3D Printed Face Masks

The FDA approved a 3D printed face mask design to address the current shortage of N-95 face masks for medical and laboratory professionals. The approved design includes a few safety requirements. First, there should be no leaks in the material or the seal of the face mask. Secondly, the 3d printed face mask should be able to cover both the nose and the mouth of the wearer securely, with no leaks. There also needs to be room to add a HEPA filter for air filtration.

Keeping these safety requirements in mind, PETG may give better results for a 3d printed face mask compared to other plastics. It is flexible enough to create the shape of a person’s nose and mouth, but durable enough to remain secure and prevent leaks.

PLA is not flexible enough to create the shape of a person’s nose and mouth without breaking. Meanwhile, TPU/TPE is too flexible to hold the shape of a face mask.

3-D printed face masks are a good replacement to N-95 face masks because they are reusable. Since they are made of plastic, it is easier to clean and wipe them down than a hand-sewn mask. For instructions on how to design and produce a 3D printed face mask, refer to this set of directions from Raise3D.


3D Printed Face Shields

A face shield is made up of two basic parts, the transparent material which covers the wearer’s face and a headband. There are many designs available for 3D printed face shields. 3D printing a face shield is a fast and economical process, which gives medical and laboratory professionals the option to dispose of the 3D printed face shield after one use (UCI News). However, if it will be used to treat patients with Coronavirus, the FDA prefers that the face shield protects a person’s face, neck, and ears. With such a large design size required to protect from Coronavirus, PLA is potentially the better option. Although generally inflexible, PLA is strong enough to hold the tension required in an effective 3D printed face shield. It is also an easy filament to print which can be practical for this kind of medical device.

PETG is a second viable option for 3D printing face shields. This filament bonds to itself stronger than other plastics do, which gives it a better chance at being an effective fluid barrier.

TPU/TPE should be avoided for a 3D printed face shield because it is too flexible to hold the necessary stiffness.


3D Printed Connector

Medical and laboratory professionals working directly with Coronavirus must constantly wear masks. With so many confirmed cases of COVID-19, these professionals tend to wear face masks for an extended period. As stated in the San Diego Union Tribune, eventually, the elastic which secures the face mask around their ears causes pain by irritating the soft tissue behind the ears. One way of avoiding this pain is by adding a connector that attaches to the elastic behind the ears and wraps around the wearer’s head therefore, removing pressure from the ears. The connector will also keep the face mask securely around the wearer’s face to prevent any leaks and gaps. Raise3D donated such connectors to medical professionals combating COVID-19 in China.

For such a connector, TPU/TPE is an excellent choice. It is flexible and durable which will let it withstand long periods of wear and still be comfortable to the wearer.


ABS and Nylon Plastic Filaments

Not every plastic is the most effective option for 3D printed PPE. As a professional printer, Raise 3D can help distinguish the pros and cons of each filament for anyone interested in 3D printing personal protective equipment.

ABS is a popular plastic in 3D printing, yet its characteristics may prevent it from meeting FDA safety requirements. For starters, ABS is highly reactive to chemicals, which will make it difficult to use in a hospital or laboratory setting. It is also stiff with a tendency to warp and deform before it breaks. This means ABS is unable to hold a shape, which is vital for face masks. It also makes it difficult to ensure that there are no leaks in any of the 3D printed PPE.

Nylon is another commonly used filament which may not be the most practical plastic for 3D printed PPE. Just like ABS, Nylon tends to warp, which can make it difficult to hold a shape. Unlike ABS, if Nylon is printed thin enough it will not warp. In general, Nylon can be difficult to work with and is an expensive material. There are less expensive filaments that offer more benefits than Nylon for 3D printed PPE during the pandemic.


How to Get Started in 3D Printing PPE

Some hobbyists and industrial 3D printers have kindly dedicated their machines to produce PPE during the shortage created by this pandemic.

However, there are some things to keep in mind before getting started in a project like this. For starters, not all medical and laboratory facilities are accepting donations of 3D printed PPE. Before purchasing a 3D printer it is advisable to confirm that the hospital or laboratory is accepting 3D printed PPE. Once a facility has confirmed its interest in 3D printed PPE, it is time to select a 3D printer. 3D printers have different features and price points. It is important to consider the future use of the printer after COVID-19 has passed.

A 3D printer can continue to be of use to a company after COVID-19. Choosing the right machine in this situation means it is vital to know what sort of jobs can be accomplished with a 3D printer. In general, 3D printers excel for fast prototyping, fixtures, jigs, and small-batch projects. Industrial 3D printers can also produce hard to find or expensive manufacturing pieces.

If an individual or business plans to use 3d printers for regular business operations, the printer should fulfill both the business and PPE requirements during the pandemic. However, it is advisable to prioritize the requirements for the business when searching for a machine because it may require specific capabilities while PPE does not. For example, most 3D printed PPE do not require a second nozzle for printing with but a second nozzle may be crucial for 3D printed models needed for your business, especially if it requires a water-soluble material or dual color. A second example is that most 3D printed PPE will not require a fully enclosed frame, however, a fully enclosed frame may be crucial to operate the 3d printer in your office, especially when all employees can return to the office.

If the only job for the 3D printer is to produce different kinds of PPE during COVID-19 the printer can continue to be useful after the pandemic. Schools are interested in acquiring 3D printers for educational purposes. Donating a machine to a school after Coronavirus would ensure the machine has a long and impactful future. Donating the 3D printer to a NGO is another excellent idea if there are no plans to use a 3D printer after COVID-19.


Raise3D offers high-quality 3d printers starting at $3499 with dual extruders and a fully enclosed frame with HEPA filter. Please click here to learn why Raise3D has the best 3D printers to use during and after the pandemic.


For More Information

If you wish to learn more about Raise 3D printers or filaments, you can find that information here.
If you wish to learn more about 3d printing during the Coronavirus, click here.
If you wish to learn more about 3d printing in general, click here.
If you wish to run a demo of our 3d printers, click here.


3D printed personal protective equipment can act as a temporary lifeline to those combating COVID-19. While the FDA and CDC list some safety regulations for 3D printed PPE, it is still possible to address those concerns and produce effective protection for those combating COVID-19. We have already seen inspiring cases of people coming together by learning about 3D printing to help protect our healthcare and laboratory professionals. If we continue to do so, we can negate the impacts of the current PPE shortage.