Volunteers launch 3D printer network to fill gap amid PPE shortage

Showing the power of collaboration, a group of West Michigan business owners launched a network of 3D printers that has grown across 10 states and a few countries. In a matter of weeks, the group has produced more than 32,000 pieces of Personal Protection Equipment for hospitals and other workers on the front lines during the coronavirus outbreak.   

“It’s connection, collaboration, and everyone working on a single vision,” explains Charles Elwood, one of the network’s co-founders. “As a group, we really understood our purpose was to help the front line and the people who didn’t have access to the PPEs, and do it as fast as possible.”

The effort has drawn people from all backgrounds and skill sets to help with the initiative dubbed 3Dc19, including pilots, attorneys, and marketing and advertising experts. People have been grateful for an opportunity to help the health care community, Elwood says. 

Jeff Robinson, owner of Hybrid Machining, turned his 13,000-square-foot facility into a distribution center to create a place where people could drop off PPEs and pick up the raw plastic material for their 3D printers. 

A 3D printer donated by Reed City prints face shield bands at Hybrid Machining.

“If we didn’t have this distribution center, this wouldn’t have worked,” Elwood says. 

The timing was good for Robinson, who recently opened his Holland Township business after selling his longtime CNC machine shop. 

Elwood, owner of SolisMatica in Holland, is contributing his business intelligence analytics expertise. He’s using spreadsheets to create reports and a dashboard to keep the operation moving smoothly. He shares that information on the group's website, providing updates hourly, letting people know about shipments, orders, donations, and key performance indicators. 
The other core leaders are Stephen Wierenga of Perception Engineering, who oversees material sourcing and injection molding tooling project management; Chris Kaminsky, printer farm technical lead; Jordan Vanderham of Orindi, tasked with mask development and printer farm technical team; and Winston Hofer, of Madroit Marketing, charged with website design.

Robinson is also part of a subgroup, with Dugan Karnazes, working on developing an open-source ventilator. When completed, plans for the ventilator will be available for anyone to manufacture on a 3D printer. Robinson is overseeing the mechanical aspect while Karnazes is in charge of the electronics.

Response to shortage

The effort began March 22 when Elwood, concerned about the shortage of PPE, put out a message on LinkedIn to see if anyone wanted to join him in putting their 3D printers to work. Within a day, he had heard from 20 people eager to make face shields for health care workers who didn’t have access to PPE to protect them from the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. The offers to help continued to pour in.

“We knew that 3D printing would fill the gap, because tooling takes a long time for the injection-molded parts,” Elwood says. 

A network of 3D printers is making Ear Savers for masks and face shields. Capacity increased from the hundreds of face masks per day to more than 3,000, when a company donated tooling equipment to create injection-molded visors. 

The group expanded to make ear savers that can be worn with masks, around the back of the head instead of around the ears, where they are causing irritation after long hours of use.

The 3D network has expanded into injection molding, which kicked off last week. The addition of industrial manufacturing equipment has dramatically expanded the capacity to produce face shields and potentially ear savers. 

In response, the group is now looking at producing pull handles for curtain dividers in hospitals so medical personnel can pull curtains by a handle instead of the material's edge to make cleaning curtains easier and more efficient. 

Accepting donations

The group has raised more than $27,000 in donations to buy polylactic acid (PLA), the raw material needed to make the shields and ear savers. The cornstarch-based plastic comes in reels and feeds into the 3D printers.

The group’s website, 3dc19.com, connects people to the operation, whether they want to make PPEs, donate money or material to the effort, or place orders. The group is working with the nonprofit fundraising site Little Stuff Fund to provide transparency with the donations.

A screen at Hybrid Machining shows where 3D printed shields and masks are being distributed.
Elwood and Robinson say the biggest challenge with the project was organizing the flow of work so everybody was on the same page and not duplicating efforts. 

“The first few days were just such chaos but, once we were aligned, everything just moved in the same direction. It was amazing,” Elwood says. 

Robinson monitors all the data coming in on four big screens in the distribution center. He can see orders, donations, and shipments. Orders have come in from Spectrum Health, Cherry Health, the Ottawa County Emergency Operations Center, Mary Free Bed, and Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, among others. 

“Unless they're large, most of our orders we've been able to turn around in probably an hour,” Robinson says. 

Donations offset costs

Recipients and others have made donations to offset the costs of the masks and shipment. The makers are donating their time, and in many cases, supplying their own raw materials.

Oliver Healthcare Packaging donated clear plastic for shields; Macatawa Plastics contributed PLA for 3D printing material; Gentex provided material and financial support; Jimdi Plastics gave injection molding of visors for face shields; and Concept Molds made a donation of molds for face shield visors.

Social media posts are thanking the 3Dc19 network volunteers for making the PPEs. The majority of the network is made up of households rather than businesses. There also are several high school and middle school robotics teams across Michigan participating.

There are nearly 400 printers in the network, but not all are active.

“Some of them have come and gone, some have run out of materials. At any given time, I would say we probably have 50% who are actively participating,” Robinson says. 

Managing expansion

The group gathered a five-person marketing team, made up of furloughed workers, who jumped on board. They are managing Facebook, Instagram, and other social media accounts to spread the word. 

Robinson says the group grew so fast, that the group had to create divisions to respond quickly to the hundreds of emails coming in. There are now six main team leads that each oversee a division.

"The coolest part of the project is how we came together. We very quickly learned our strengths and weaknesses, and then everybody took a role. There was no bickering," Robinson explains.

The 3Dc19 network is helping a sister group that is making cloth masks.  They created tools – pleat fixtures and bias tape makers – that are being used to make the masks' straps. 

Before this project drew them together as collaborators, Robinson and Elwood kept hearing from others that they needed to meet. Both are active in the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce, but the closest they got to that introduction was a LinkedIn connection.

When they heard each was organizing a 3D printer network, they decided to join forces.

“I figured there’s no reason to duplicate efforts, so we put this together in a matter of a day,” Robinson says. “We merged databases, and the rest is history.”

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs, and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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