America’s Garage Hobbyists Fight the Pandemic With 3D Printers

Date: 2020-04-22 12:01:25


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 customized 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 this week). 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. Read More:

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