Architects join 3D printing relief efforts

3D printing

Jeffrey Huber, AIA, interim director of the Florida Atlantic University School of Architecture, never imagined one month ago what his work week would be like in early April: Producing protective face shields in his home using 3D printers and rushing them to delivery drivers and other workers at a high risk of being infected with the novel coronavirus.

Using an open-source template by Swedish 3D printing company 3DVerkstan—adapted for U.S. use by the Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning—Huber now spends his time printing plastic headbands and, using a three-hole punch, connecting the “halos” to transparent film shields. He has begun delivering the shields to local health and service institutions dealing with shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE), including Broward Health, the Cleveland Clinic, the Lighthouse of Broward County (a nonprofit for the visually impaired) and the Florida Atlantic University student health clinic.

“These aren’t medical-grade PPEs,” said Huber, of Brooks + Scarpa in Fort Lauderdale. “We’re trying to get these to the front-of-the-house folks, first responders and other people in need, at a time when medical-grade PPEs are being diverted to hospitals.”

Huber’s DIY initiative, which he said is rapidly expanding to include area architecture firms and students, is part of a fast-growing nationwide grassroots mobilization effort to use 3D printers to help solve shortage problems in PPE and parts for ventilators and other medical devices.

The architecture profession is particularly well-suited to join this new maker movement, as architects and firms now commonly use 3D printers for rapidly producing precise scale models of architectural designs rendered using computer-aided design (CAD) programs. Gruen Associates of Los Angeles donated 60 spools of 3D printer filament to small firms that have printers but cannot afford to buy material, according to Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, of Brooks + Scarpa in Hawthorne, Calif.

Similar to inkjet printers, 3D printers use plastic filament, typically of polylactic acid (PLA), to build up three-dimensional models layer by layer, at a speed and cost significantly lower than traditional models made from wooden, cardboard, foam, or paper. 3D printers range in cost from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars for high-end models. While many firms outsource 3D model-making to dedicated printing shops, many architects have 3D printers in their firms or homes.

The architecture schools at Cornell and the University of Southern California are the early leaders in the U.S. initiative. Alvin Huang, AIA, director of graduate and post-professional architecture at the USC School of Architecture, recently launched “Operation PPE,” which makes face guards and plastic masks with replaceable filters. Partners and associates from more than 100 firms, mostly in California, now communicate regularly via a Slack channel to share the latest designs and 3D printing advice, Scarpa said.

Architects are working closely with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office. The city partnered with AIA Los Angeles to survey members and match PPE resources with hospitals.

Scarpa said his firm is running two 3D printing machines all day and night, as well as a laser cutter, to create face shields and Huang’s mask design. Output has improved to three units every two hours, with about 300 produced to date. “We’re making iterative changes, sometimes by the hour,” he said. “Although we’re not medical faculty, we’re trying to provide products that meet their standards and specs.”

Recent guidance from state and federal public health officials strongly urges people to wear surgical, or even homemade, masks whenever out in public, a request that significantly lowers the barrier for those trying to help without facing exposure from product liability lawsuits. All but 10 states have “Good Samaritan” laws that provide protection to those providing disaster assistance. (AIA has a guide to state Good Samaritan laws here).

Still, the 3-D printing of PPE—and medical-grade masks, in particular—is not without controversy. The Food and Drug Administration on April 2 warned against using 3D printing for masks, saying “3D-printed PPE are unlikely to provide the same fluid barrier and air filtration protection as FDA-cleared surgical masks and N95 respirators.”

While the FDA cautions against using 3D printers for medical-quality masks, it is throwing its support behind using the printers for respirator parts and other medical supplies. On March 30 the FDA announced the latest phase of a partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a 3D printing trade group called America Makes to build a repository of 3-D printing patterns. Designers of 3D medical equipment can submit designs for fast-track review, with approved designs appearing on the NIH 3D Print Exchange.

Drawing on those resources, architects, engineers, students, and entrepreneurs from across the country are busy swapping designs, raising funds for 3D printing materials, and delivering their output to local health facilities and other essential businesses and institutions.

Image credits

3D printing

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