The power of 3D printing: From raw material to protecting our front lines
The 3D printing lab at Geisinger is already an amazing team — now instead of producing models of organs, they’re creating devices to keep our teams safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sarah Flora isn’t afraid to tell you she has “the coolest job ever.” As program director of Geisinger’s 3D printing lab, she oversees lots of neat stuff, like 3D-printed models of a patient’s anatomy based on CT and MRI scans.
“We can print an aorta and heart to scale, then the team from the cardiac catheterization lab can practice on the patient’s specific anatomy prior to working on the patient,” she says of just one of the many types of creations the lab uses to enhance patient care.
But the 3D printing lab has switched gears in recent weeks — from looking inside the human body to protecting its outside. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the printers have been used to create several different devices to prevent the spread of the virus among Geisinger employee and patients.
One such device is a 3D-printed face shield frame. Sheets of transparency film (“Remember the transparencies used on projectors in schools during the ‘90s?” says Ms. Flora) are inserted into the plastic frames to create a full-face shield — protecting frontline workers’ eyes and face masks from potentially dangerous droplets.
Ms. Flora says the team has made close to 1,000 shields already using the 3D printing technology and donations of transparency film from the community. She says when the team started working on this project, she was astounded by the community’s willingness to help.
“I put out a call for the transparency film on Facebook, and I received so many responses from all sorts of businesses,” says Ms. Flora. “The outpouring of support has been amazing.”
Bucknell University and Bloomsburg University are helping in the efforts, as well.
About two dozen students, faculty and staff members at Bucknell University are working together to design, produce and supply face shields to local hospitals.
“The work that we have done and continue to do has been very rewarding, personally, and as an engineer I can say that I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to directly assist healthcare providers on the front lines of this crisis,” says Nate Siegel, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Bucknell University.
The lab at Geisinger hosts six 3D printers. Bloomsburg University has 50. Geisinger’s printers can create two face shield frames an hour, and, since one company donated a printer to Ms. Flora to use at home, she is printing around the clock.
“All day at work I am printing, and then I go home and print,” she says.
And companies like MatterHackers, a 3D printing service with a facility in York, Pa., and Gantri, a lighting company, have also contributed to the cause. They’ve donated materials, printer use and shipping for these devices to get them into the hands of those who need — healthcare workers in our communities.
More tech to protect
Other devices include mask adjusters, little pieces of plastic staff can use to hook their mask straps to, preventing irritation behind their ears — an issue frontline staff are now dealing with after constantly wearing masks for weeks on end.
The lab has also produced 3D-printed mask straps for N95 masks. The increasing need for N95 masks is a national issue, and masks that were once sitting in a warehouse in storage for a long time are now being used on the front lines. Ms. Flora says those masks are perfectly fine to use, but the straps are a different story — some break due to dry rot, others, when stretched, lose their original elasticity. The solution is 3D-printed adjustable mask straps which, after fit testing, turned out to work better than the manufacturer’s straps.
Other projects that are in the works include vent splitters to allow two patients to one ventilator and mass-producing nasal swabs.
Bringing departments together
Aalpen Patel, MD, wears many hats at Geisinger — two of them are that he serves as the chair of Department of Radiology and medical director of the 3D lab. In addition, he’s taken the lead in making sure these 3D-printed products get where they need to do. He works with Geisinger’s Supply Chain, Safety and Industrial Hygiene and Employee Health departments to help make sure these products are used in accordance with regulatory guidance.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to help the front lines and contribute to the cause,” says Dr. Patel.
Kate Polczynski, associate vice president of Supply Chain, says the support by the innovation community is greatly appreciated to assist in preparing for any disruptions within the traditional supply chain. These 3D-printed devices will be incorporated into the stock available to healthcare providers as traditionally manufactured products are depleted. Products created through innovation that are needed more immediately due to unique challenges COVID-19 patient care has created will be made immediately available to care givers, such as the mask straps created to avoid ear irritation due to extended PPE wear.