Future Tense

Why DIY 3D-Printed Face Masks and Shields Are So Risky

Lots of people are trying to help by making their own protective equipment for health workers. But there isn’t enough guidance to help them do it safely.

A man holds a blue, white, and orange mask.
Brian Lovett shows off one of his 3D-printed masks. Brian Lovett

Brian Lovett, a product manager at an ad-tech firm in Denver, started 3D-printing quaint little knickknacks—coffee coasters and orchids pots—for his home back in 2018. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit his city, two of Lovett’s close friends, both doctors in the emergency room of Denver Health, told him that their supplies of protective equipment would run dry within 10 days. So, Lovett set his 3D printers on a different task: churning out protective face masks at a rate of 20 each day. Like a wartime Father Christmas, Lovett delivers the masks to his friends each morning, leaving them on their doorsteps in vacuum-sealed boxes.

Lovett is one of thousands across America who have repurposed 3D-printing machinery to produce medical equipment, such as face shields and face masks, for doctors on the front lines of the pandemic, bypassing the government and usually taking no profit in return. In the absence of clear government guidance, these hobbyists—as well as small 3D-printing factories—often rely on friends working at hospitals to inform their designs as well as advice from like-minded volunteers online.

But without enough guidance, much of the volunteers’ output could be wasted—or, worse, harmful to those they are trying to protect. Medical grade face masks and shields must be fit for purpose, and some hospitals are having to turn away much of the equipment because it is of poor quality, badly designed, or assembled incorrectly or in insanitary conditions. Those hospitals desperate enough to use it put their doctors’ health in the hands of people like Lovett, who works in advertising.

“We’ve been offered 3D-printed face masks but had to reject them due to serious questions about their efficacy in preventing transmission of COVID-19, as well as potential issues with carbon dioxide, moisture build-up, and lack of proper fitting,” said Andy Lin, who is the director of the Emerging Tech Lab at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in California and also a visiting lecturer in engineering at Caltech.

One of the problems with 3D printing is that “a network of people who are producing the same part can result in vast differences of quality,” said Lin, who also coordinates local efforts to produce personal protective equipment, or PPE, at home. But for anyone producing PPE at home, hospitals have no way of verifying that parts were assembled in sanitary conditions, he said.

“One of the hospitals calls it ‘the garage PPE,’ ” said Sarah Boisvert, founder of 3D-printing school Fab Lab Hub, who works with hospitals to 3D-print materials. “This is a far more complicated problem than just making Christmas ornaments for your family.”

Lovett readily admits that he is not an expert. But he and others who want to help are stymied in part by a lack of clear government regulation around simple designs.

Most citizen manufacturers are producing face shields, simple transparent visors that cover the face and project doctors from airborne pathogens. So long as they stop droplets entering the mouth, nose, and eyes, manufacturers of face shields can essentially build whatever they want, up to a point. But if they get things wrong, they “can really do damage, not to mention waste time and energy and resources,” said Boisvert. Some popular designs are too flimsy to “withstand constant daily use,” said Lin, while others “sit too close to the face,” making them unsafe for doctors who wear glasses.

Lovett’s face masks are even more complex—they require special filters that are harder to make. But he is far from reckless. He checks each design with his friends in the ER and makes small tweaks per their recommendations. “I’ve probably gone through 24 designs in the past month,” he said. Then, “the masks are manufactured in a separate room. The equipment itself is wiped down with a pure isopropyl alcohol between every print. Anytime the masks are handles, I’m wearing gloves, as well as a respirator.”

But for more information, he relies on other citizen manufacturers—not the government. A Slack channel he set up now has more than 550 members, who collaborate on designs, share best practises for production and make arrangements with workers from local hospitals.

Even well-equipped 3D-printing factories have had to work things out for themselves. In March, Max Friefeld, CEO of New York–based Voodoo Manufacturing, cleared orders from his factory’s 200 printers, which previously produced things such as phone cases and cookie cutters, and started producing an average of 500 protective face shields each day. Like Lovett, Friefeld said he has not printed medical equipment for hospitals before and has no prior relationships with any of them.

For expertise, he relies heavily on his employees’ families and friends who work at local hospitals. And he is fashioning his 3D-printed masks using blueprints published by Czech company Prusa3D, which he has tweaked according to the requirements of hospitals in New York. Like Lovett, Friefeld is also relying upon informal networks of 3D printer operators; a Slack channel called 3D Corps serves as a source of vital information. But there, information “flows so quickly that it’s almost impossible to focus,” he said. “It’s like a firehose.”

A government-recommended specification designed for the unique requirements of the coronavirus “would be a godsend, because that would allow us and hospitals to all agree on a single design and kind of have everybody on the same page of what ‘safe’ is,” said Friefeld. But no such thing exists. Friefeld said he’s started to adapt his designs according to those recommended by the National Institute of Health, which he calls “very helpful,” but Lin said these haven’t gone through rigorous testing.

Despite these concerns, Boisvert doesn’t want to entirely discourage people who want to help. Though 3D printers are expensive and “ridiculously slow,” they are relatively easy to run and can reach people beyond the front lines, she said. Lovett, for instance, said that his masks cost about $1 to make. If a hobbyist uses their resources to build PPE for friends and neighbors, that “is going to have a lot of impact,” said Boisvert.

Factories can also produce additional PPE for local areas that suffer from shortages. Stratasys says it has already produced more than 30,000 face shields, which have so far been shipped to more than 40 organizations, among them hospitals and fire stations in small towns.

Beyond helping protect public health, there’s another tangible benefit here: Pumping out bespoke masks and shields provides a lifeline for businesses that would otherwise be legally required to shut down.

For Voodoo Manufacturing, the only other option was to close the entire factory. The state of New York has issued a shutdown order, so if it weren’t providing essential services, the company’s employees would be out of a job. “This is a product that we can make that will continue to pay our factory team’s salaries so that they can continue paying their bills,” said Friefeld. “We’re trying to help everybody out as much as possible.”

Now, under Friefeld’s instructions, four two-person teams work tightly coordinated factory shifts to reduce the risk of infection, and the remaining laborers assemble face shields at home. “If we weren’t producing [personal protective equipment], or something that was equally important, I don’t think our employees would actually want to risk their health coming into work,” he said.

Boisvert, whose 3D-printing school, Fab Lab Hub, forms part of an international network of distributed manufacturers called Fab Lab, said that the next big step is to figure out how to coordinate large groups.  “When you have a coordinated effort, you can vet the best designs because you have a group that has more expertise than just your individual group,” she said.

While Americans wait for better government regulation, Boisvert recommends that volunteers work on things other than PPE. Lovett, however, urges something more radical: “more coordinated effort on the part of the government to help.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.