3D Printing Helps Essential Workers Face COVID-19

3D printed parts on a 3D printer at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany. (Credit: ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

COLOGNE, Germany (ESA PR) — Knowledge and 3D printers at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany are being put to work in the fight against COVID-19 as part of a joint initiative to keep essential workers safe.

Usually used to print special items for astronaut training and test ideas for future spaceflight as part of Spaceship EAC, two open-source 3D printers are proving an ideal tool for producing components for face shields as part of a local MakerVsVirus initiative. Under this initiative, EAC contributes its parts to those supplied by a wider hub of makers. The completed face shields are then delivered to hospitals in need.

Efficient and effective, in space and on Earth

3D printing has emerged as a valuable tool for future spaceflight as it brings production closer to the point of use and gives astronauts the ability to produce components as they need them, rather than carrying a full suite of spare parts. It also allows waste materials to be recycled into usable items and has potential to be used in building lunar structures.  

One stack of ready-to-assemble and to-use face shields at a central collection point of the MakerVsVirus initiative, ready for delivery to local hospitals. (Credit: MakerVsVirus, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

As technology is constantly improving, interns and researchers at EAC are currently investigating the possibility of 3D printing components from new materials, like a mix of plastic and lunar regolith (Moon dust), that could be used to manufacture bricks or more complex parts, and possibly creating a lunar habitat at a larger scale.

In the case of the face shields, the team is following a standardised print design that has been optimised through crowd engineering – ensuring fast, efficient and consistent production of the shield’s headband and bracket for contribution to the final product.

Each face shield is made up of four parts: a 3D printed headband and 3D printed bracket, these hold a visor made out of a clear plastic sheet. The fourth component is an elastic band that allows the shield to sit comfortably on a person’s head.

EAC is responsible for printing the headband and bracket. Each set of these elements takes 1.5-3 hours to print in full.

3D printer at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany. This printer is used to produce components for face shields, which will be used by local hospitals in the fight against COVID-19. (Credit: ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Teamwork and solidarity to fight COVID-19

ESA trainee and member of Spaceship EAC Timon Schild leads the “Advanced Manufacturing” activities of Spaceship EAC. As a mechanical engineer with experience in 3D-printing, he identified the opportunity to work with MakerVsVirus and assisted the remote set-up to enable ‘jobless’ printers to be reallocated while EAC is closed to training activities. Timon is also using his own 3D printer to contribute to efforts from home.

“The complete face shields built from this design are part of the medical workforce’s Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, and should be used in conjunction with a filtering mask,” he explains. “They are essential in many hospitals and cover a worker’s entire face to protect against potentially virus-carrying liquid droplets.

Assembled face shield ready-to-use together with filtering mask. (Credit: MakerVsVirus)

 “While technically we could have produced the entire face shield, we did not have the hardware and materials ready for efficient production of the visor. Taking this on would have required a more time-intensive set-up and delayed production,” Timon adds. “Working with MakerVsVirus allows us to focus on the parts we are well equipped to produce, while having a single point of contact for distribution”.

Once printed, the holders are carefully placed in sealable plastic bags and delivered to a local collection point where all components are assembled before the face shields are distributed to hospitals in need.

The first batch of 50 holder elements have already been delivered and the team plans to continue, as long as printing materials are available, until the acute need has passed.

One stack of 3D printed parts for face shields, produced by ESA’s European Astronauts Centre (EAC), in bags and ready for delivery to a central collection point of the MakerVsVirus initiative. This is where the face shields are assembled and then sent to local hospitals in the fight against COVID-19. (Credit: ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

ESA science advisor and head of Spaceship EAC Aidan Cowley is proud of his team’s effort and innovation in a time of crisis.

”Everyone felt a strong desire to help in whatever way they could. By partnering with this local initiative we can work collaboratively to solve a pressing demand and protect the people who are fighting the virus on the front line,” he says.