Garage hobbyists fight Covid-19 pandemic with 3D printers
Before Covid-19, most Americans likely hadn't heard of 3D printing. If they had, it probably conjured visions of tinkerers and techies in their garages obsessing over Dungeons & Dragons figurines. Or worse, they remember it had something to do with plastic guns.
And it is true that designs of Baby Yoda were very popular earlier this year, right up there with storage boxes, cosplay props, pencil holders-and yes-action figures for role playing games.
But the pandemic has turned this expensive, niche hobby into something deadly serious. Those tinkerers and techies are increasingly stepping in where others have fallen tragically short. People across the country are running 3D printers around the clock. In basements, workshops, bedrooms and garages, the web is filled with pictures of individuals churning out personal protective equipment desperately needed by medical professionals on the front lines of a public health catastrophe.
It's estimated that about 870,000 3D printers are operating in the U.S., according to Terry Wohlers of Wohlers Associates Inc., who tracks industrial and personal printer sales globally. He noted that if just one-third of those printers are making one PPE item per day, that would add up to almost 2 million PPE items per week.
If some of the anecdotes posted on social media sites such as Facebook and Discord are to be believed, the actual output is much higher.
People are reporting that they are making dozens of PPE items every day. Right now, the most popular items being printed are straps for medical face shields, parts for medical face masks and "ear savers," a small plastic piece that allows health care professionals and other emergency personnel to avoid putting straps around their ears. After hours of wearing a mask, they can chafe badly.
Jack Chen, the co-founder of Creality3D in Shenzhen, China, said the increase in interest has been unmistakable. Sales of his company's popular, entry-level machines were about 50,000 units globally in February, he said. That increased by 5,000 units in March as many Americans began to fall ill with the virus (about 40% of the company's sales go to the U.S.). For April, deliveries are on track to reach as many as 170,000 (they were 85,000 at mid-month).
One member of the this 3D-volunteer force is Kate Bilyeu, a social media marketer in Eugene, Oregon. She recently ordered a Creality printer for about $229, and said she's prepared to make whatever parts she can to help battle the pandemic.
"Even if I just have one machine, I can print enough for people that I know," said Bilyeu, 37, who like many others trying 3D printing for the first time, has a personal motivation. Bilyeu said she has two brothers-in-law who work in local hospitals and are constantly at risk because of the shortage of PPE.
For the uninitiated, 3D printers take raw plastic, heat it up to more than 400 degrees (220 degrees Celsius) and convert it, layer by layer, to match designs either downloaded from the internet or devised on a home computer.
Printers range from just under $200 to as much as $2,000 each (and can be further customised for hundreds of dollars more). They have a system of rails and pulleys that move the hot plastic extruder above a flat bed where the item you're printing takes shape. Autodesk is a popular software program for designers, and there are free programs that can be used to convert a design into a file your printer can read.
Though the plastic can smell a bit when its melting, the good news is that most of what's out there is plant-based, or is the kind used in water bottles and, coincidentally, considered hospital safe.
Social media web sites are full of discussion groups and channels about who is making PPE, how they are making it and which designs are being used. Michael Copeland, 32, of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, said he already has requests from medical organizations that he can fulfill with his Creality printer when it arrives. He estimates he's watched hundreds of hours of YouTube videos and plans to lean heavily on a friend who is already a 3D printing expert.
The Facebook group 3D Printing for Noobs (newbies, or beginners) has more than 12,000 members-an increase of 1,000 in just the past week. Discussions are dominated by people new to the hobby who want to learn how to make PPE. Another popular Facebook site, 3D Printing Club, has seen close to a 25% increase in new members. Joel Telling, who hosts the YouTube channel 3D Printing Nerd, said the videos on making PPE are by far his most popular shows at the moment.
And the rush to supply medical equipment isn't just in America. Last year, at least 700,000 of so-called desktop 3D printers were sold around the world, almost double the number from 2015. Josef Prusa, the founder of Prusa Research, makes his own line of popular 3D printers produced in the Czech Republic. Sales have doubled since February, he said.
Prusa, 30, said he posted one of the first designs for a face shield online as the virus hit the European nation. The company has a production facility with 600 3D printers. Since the pandemic, close to half of them have been making medical face straps-75,000 sets so far, he said. Prusa's design was downloaded more than 100,000 times before the company had to disable the counting software, since it was slowing down the company's servers.
"It is bonkers," he said. "We didn't expect that it would pick up so much all over the world. When we first started handing these out, we had people crying on the phone because they had nothing."
Ryan Tuleja Sr., of Bond, Oregon, set up his $175 printer on April 9 and has already printed more than 100 items, a mixture of those ear-saving straps and a special, tiny plastic block used by people making homemade cloth masks. The 42-year-old first-timer said he saw reports of other people pitching in to help the medical community and wanted to get involved.
As I write this, I have two of my three 3D printers running pretty much around the clock in the basement. None of them were made by Creality, but one is a Prusa model. Two of them I built myself-with the help of a teenage daughter. I can attest that this is not a plug-and-play hobby: Printing plastic at 500 degrees is as much about the process of tinkering with the machine as it is the end result.
The local techie store, just north of hard-hit Detroit, sells 3D printers and the plastic filaments that feed them. Meg Miller, a project manger for business initiatives at Micro Center, said the chain is selling 3D products at all of its 25 U.S. locations. Even during the pandemic, sales are continuing (albeit curbside) because the chain's inventory of computer equipment is considered an "essential business."
Sales of printers and filaments have increased during shutdowns, but Miller said the company isn't releasing figures. During a recent visit, Creality printers could be seen stacked two or three to a cart, waiting for customers to pick them up.
Christian Tamte, of Columbus, Ohio, recently got her new printer. A travel agent, Tamte has a lot of free time these days. She spent last weekend on Facebook, asking for advice on how to get the printer tuned and ready to print. "It's a journey. So much more technical than I ever imagined," she said. Tamte, 40, said she has already worked her way up to about 100 pieces a day, and is sending some of them to health care staff in New York.
"The sole reason I'm doing it is to make PPE for the medical field," she said. "I've got family and friends who are nurses and doctors all over the country-including New York City and New Jersey. I'll be sending the items to them as soon as I make them."