13 May

3d printed face shields, a project

I’ve been asked to write down a kind of history of events leading to today with the face shields project I’ve been trying to stay on top of.

On March 24th, I called my local hospital (Monaghan Hospital) because I wanted to help out. I was given an email address to send to. I just found the email I sent:

email offering help

In it, I said I probably had enough filament to offer 25 shields, and had purchased more so might be able to provide 100 total. (haha – I laugh.)

I had been discussing this idea with some people in the “3D Printing Ireland” group in Facebook, where some other people were also contacting their local hospitals to offer help.

We half expected to be ignored. Who are we? Just hobbiests working in sheds and attics. Who are we to try offer our help to the real experts?

My email and details were passed around to a few people before I was finally in contact with Lorraine Brady, who liased with Cavan and Monaghan hospitals for me. We arranged to meet, and I gave her three separate designs (I think) to bring to her infection control team to examine.

There are a number of popular frame designs that people could choose among. Each of them is a simple design where a transparent A4-sized plastic sheet is “hung” onto nubs in the frame which are positioned so that a common paper punch can place the holes correctly.

The first I became aware of is the “Prusa” model, named after the 3D Printer company called Prusa. I wasn’t over-fond of their design because it was very bulky, but it was tested in conjunction with the Czech health authorities, so I offered that as a design.

Secondly, there is a company called 3D Verkstan, a Swedish company specialising in 3D printing and design. They designed a frame that was about 1/3 the height of the Prusa model. I liked this one, as it was compact and relatively quick to print. Again, theirs was designed in conjuction with local health authorities.

The final design I tried out was one that was a bit like the second but more curved. I’m not sure why, but the original designer of this model pulled the design from websites shortly afterwards.

Lorraine came back to me on the 26th of March and said that the infection control team were happy with the Verkstan model. The only change they wanted was that the visor itself should be cut an inch shorter and the corners rounded on it so it doesn’t catch on clothes.

The Verkstan model is very quick to print. With barely any tuning on my printer at all, I could make one every 50 minutes. The Prusa model, though, took almost 3 hours to print one.

I started recording deliveries on the 29th of March, when I gave Lorraine 42 face shields. I would then give her an average of about 25 shields per day for the next few weeks.

In the beginning, I’m told that the nurses were using the shields once and then discarding them, as is normal procedure in hospitals. But these are not normal times. They were asked not to do this, after the infection control team investigated various ways to clean them so they could be re-used.

Because I (and most people) print using PLA, normal autoclaving is out of the question – the temperature causes the plastic to warp. Thankfully, warm water and soap is all that’s needed to destroy a virus, so the hospital was able to start re-using the frames.

This was important, because it allowed me to then start offering face shields to other people.

It occured to me that I could ask the local council for help, and with a record of delivered face shields, that would give me a stronger case, so I contacted a friend, Paul Bond, who I thought would be a good go-between to start from. Looking back through my records, it looks like I contacted Paul on the 26th of March (earlier than I thought). He immediately said to just go ahead with what I was doing. He knows me through other volunteer work (particularly Monaghan Coder Dojo), so I guess he knew I wasn’t joking around.

Monaghan Town Team is a local events-organising group tied to the council. Paul explained that there was money left over from the St Patrick’s day parade which had been cancelled because of the virus, and whatever I did would be covered from that.

On the 30th, I gave 10 face shields to Dungannon Nursing Home. I actually felt a bit guilty about this, because the hospitals were where all the action was, right? Wrong. Turns out the nursing homes were equally in danger, but they were worse off with regard to PPE (personal protective equipment), as the HSE were not supplying nursing homes.

As more requests came in from other groups, Paul took up the task of delivering the shields. I don’t drive, and he had permission to drive around as he was volunteering his services to deliver pharmaceutical supplies to people.

The requests started to grow, and I needed more printers and filament.

I paid for a printer (an Anet A8 Plus) out of the Monaghan Town Team funds along with a few spools of PLA. In normal times, I get through 1kg of PLA in about a month. I was not sure how that would change. It turns out now that I’m getting through about 3kg every single day. 90 times as much. But I was conservative with my orders in the beginning because I was fully aware that I was using other peoples’ money, and I’ve never been comfortable with that.

I asked a few friends to lend me their printers, and they did! On the 28th, I was given two Anet A8s and an Anet A8 Plus (printer models). Unfortunately, they were each broken or not fully assembled, so work was required. Over the next two days, I got two of them up and running, but one of the Anet A8s was broken beyond repair (the motherboard was burned out).

a delivery of loaned printers

Una-Minh Kavanagh of WeAreIrish.com wrote an article about what we (the 3D printing community) were working on. Various other news papers also wrote articles. Northern Sound, Anglo Celt. I remember speaking to someone from AP, and one of the guys who loaned me his printer “volunteered” me to speak to Joe Duffy (radio broadcaster). I’m told that was well-received.

The local Monaghan Town Runners group offered a large donation through Paul (a member of the group). I did not ask for the money, but gave a list of materials that I needed for the project – four new printers and a load of PLA – and they went ahead and ordered it!

A friend had asked me why I didn’t start a fund-raising campaign. I’m not comfortable touching other peoples’ money, so I much prefer to spend my own money, and let other people donate material instead (like how I handled the Town Runners offer).

But, it also occurred to me that there were a lot of frustrated people out there that wanted to help but didn’t know how, so creating a fund-rasing campaign so they could donate and I could use the money raised to buy materials and tools for the project actually made sense.

I created a GoFundMe campaign on the 12th of April, asking for €500, as I thought that would be all that I need to cover whatever requests come up.

As of today, the figure raised on that is €4580 (of which €4418 is available after fees), and I have spent about €4000 of that, on about 100kg of filament, thousands of binder covers, one more printer (still waiting on that…), various replacement parts for broken bits on the other printers, and some tools to help speed up cutting of visors.

The orders were starting to grow, so I needed to find ways to produce the shields faster and with less effort. Here’s an example of about 6 days of orders (Apr 8 to Apr 13):

sample of order table

The Verkstan model takes about 50 minutes to print on a standard printer with the default 0.4mm nozzle. This meant that I could produce at most 16 frames per day, and needed to be next to the printer at all times so I could reload every hour.

Luckily my day-job is in computers, so it wasn’t a big deal to work from the shed and just take a few minutes every hour to reload the printers.

But those 8 hours of sleep bothered me – there must be a way to “stack” the frames such that I could get some sleep and wake up to a load of frames ready to separate.

“Stacking” printed objects is not straight-forward. If the space between objects is too small, they will bond together and break if you try to separate them. If the space is too large, then the printer will start printing “spaghetti” and you will just waste filament.

a stack of spaghetti

Even if you get the space just right, there are additional complex problems associated with curves, that are not straightforward to solve.

It took me about a week of testing and fine-tuning to solve the problems. In the end, I was able to create a stack of 20 face shields, separated by 0.6mm, with a tiny bit of carefully placed “scaffolding” in between the shields to help keep the shape. Combined with a larger nozzle size (0.6mm), I managed to reduce the print time to about 30 minutes per frame.

successfully stacked frames

The result was not as smooth as when the frames are printed out one at a time, with stray plastic “hairs” making the frames scratchy, but the fact that I could now print out a lot of frames every day made this a price I was willing to pay. And even as I felt guilty for giving out scratchy frames to nurses and carers, I also felt it was justified because I could give out more of them. Also, I wasn’t charging. What are they going to do – demand their money back?

I managed to increase the output from 16 per day per printer with hourly reloads, to more than 40 per day per printer with just 2 reloads. I have 6 printers running right this minute, creating at least 240 frames per day.

On April 24th, I wrote a post explaining the various tricks I used to speed up production. Partly so other people can use my experience, and partly so I can remind myself if this happens again.

The donated printers were all Anet printers, just like my own. Unfortunately, those printers are very cheap but not very good. I like them myself, but that’s because I like to tinker. So when I bought one more printer, I got yet another Anet A8 because it’s what I’m familiar with and comfortable fixing.

Resources were very low a few times over the next few weeks. I had underestimated both how quick I was burning through PLA and how slow the post had become because of the virus. At two points, I had to turn off some printers because I did not have any PLA for them to print with.

I started overcompensating for that, ordering larger amounts. I now have enough filament on stand-by that I can keep printing for about 3 weeks before running out. That’s better than needing it and not having it.

left to right, Anet A8 Plus, and 3 Creality Ender Pros

Over time, the orders started getting fewer but larger. I started delivering to some larger hubs such as the Armagh COVID-19 Response Committee, and the Bravo Charlie Tango – Bikers Coming Through groups.

In total, I have given away about 7000 face shields so far. I am not sure yet of all the accounts, but the cost per face shield has averaged at between 50c and €1.

I’m still printing at full pelt, and expect to continue for the next week at least. I hope there isn’t a second wave, but if there is, I am prepared to continue.

I fully expect that all material I have paid for (and will continue to buy until the fund run out) will be used. People are going to be asking for shields for weeks after the “peak” has been reached. So far, every single one that I have produced has been donated within a day or two, and I don’t expect that to stop for a few weeks.

Financially, I’ve received help from Monaghan Town Team, Monaghan Town Runners, a GoFundMe campaign, a donation of €500 from Bank Of Ireland (through NewsTalk), and a grant from Monaghan Council.

More photos documenting this project: mine, Bronwyn’s.

I’m sure I’ve missed a lot in this – if there are any questions, please ask!