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Researchers Use Futuristic Technology to Print 1,000 Face Shield Parts Per Day for Coronavirus Pandemic

Researchers hope to make a dent in hospitals’ needs with a single 3D printer.

Northwestern University researchers have demonstrated the ability to generate 1,000 components for face shields per day — with a single 3D printer.

A critical piece of personal protective equipment (PPE), face shields protect health care workers from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) as they treat patients.

When Northwestern researchers Chad A. Mirkin and David Walker heard about the PPE shortage in hospitals, their team sprang into action. In October, Mirkin and his research group, in a breakthrough article in the journal Science, unveiled a new 3D printing technique called “high-area rapid printing” (HARP), a 13-feet-tall printer with a 2.5 square-foot print bed that can print about half a yard in an hour — a record throughput for the 3D printing field.

“Even fleets of 3D printers are having difficulty meeting demand for face shields because the need is so enormous,” Mirkin said. “But HARP is so fast and powerful that we can put a meaningful dent in that need.”

Parts are produced at a rate of 1,000 per day by running the printer 24/7. Volunteer team members are working in six-hour shifts to keep the production cycle continuously ongoing.

Mirkin is the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and director of the International Institute of Nanotechnology. Walker is an entrepreneur-in-residence at Northwestern. Along with fellow Northwestern researcher James Hedrick, Mirkin and Walker invented the technology underlying HARP and founded Azul 3D, Inc., a company that has licensed HARP intellectual property (U.S. patent application 62/815,175).

Face shields comprise three components: a sturdy plastic headband, a clear plastic sheet and elastic. The plastic sheet clips into the headband, which is then secured to a wearer’s head with a stretchy elastic band.

The Azul 3D team will lead the headband printing and has partnered with a local manufacturing company to provide the laser-cut clear plastic shields. A third partner is sanitizing and packaging the face shield components into easy-to-assemble kits, which will be supplied to area hospitals. The team notes that the face shields can be washed and reused, and is now addressing the regulatory requirements to put the shields into use.


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