The New “Face” of 3D Printing
Overcoming Concerns and Pride
Like it or not, 3D Printed PPE is the new face of 3D printing in the media today. As a long time 3D printing industry professional, I am processing the effectiveness and impact we are truly having on this pandemic. Truthfully, I struggle with the idea of face shields being the legacy of our response to this worldwide challenge. It’s too simple. It’s a better fit for hobby printers than professional printers. People are confused about what is actually printing because terms like “face mask” and “face shield” were being used interchangeably. There are ideas floating around about the efficacy of 3D printed materials and processes in a highly regulated environment (for good reason). Is 3D printing really the right tool for the job? Here at AdvancedTek, we often preach the adage “just because you can 3D print something, it doesn’t mean you should”. Ultimately, I have been concerned about the possibility of doing more harm and risking the inadvertent spread of the virus because of lack of information or incorrect information.
In the past few days, I have had to swallow my pride. I started to come around to recognizing the value of printing face shield components after talking with my team at AdvancedTek, colleagues at Stratasys as well as very knowledgeable customers in the healthcare field. We learned about how the regulatory environment had been loosened so that manufacturers like 3M could sell commercial PPE to be used in medical applications. What really pushed me over the edge was the requests and responses from the healthcare workers themselves.
My biggest concern remains in the clean-ability of FDM parts. The printed headbands in most cases are meant to be disposable. Are we really communicating the risk of reusing the face shields? Do we know for sure they can be cleaned effectively? I do not want to offer false security or worse yet expose our healthcare workers to risk. While 3D printed components may not be ideal in every aspect, they are far better than nothing according to the industry professionals that we spoke with, in spite of the limitations. I hope this remains true after this is all said and done.
Addressing the Supply Chain
In this high demand situation for PPE, the traditional supply chain was stretched or disrupted and traditional sources were unable to adapt quick enough to ramping up tooling and distribution to those in need quick enough. 3D printing became an excellent “stop gap” or bridge to production. It was really exciting to see a new network of distributed manufacturing to business and even homes all around the country. It is incredibly encouraging to see individuals and organizations eager and willing to contribute to the cause. It has been surprising to see the willingness of individuals and organizations to share their designs for anyone to use free of charge, crowdsourcing at its best. Seeking Alpha referred to it as “Hyper-local manufacturing turning on a dime to serve an immediate need”. Wow, that is really powerful.
Maximizing the Impact of 3D Printing
Most importantly, I decided to use the face shield initiative as a jumping off point to illustrate the power of additive technology to people who have not directly experienced how transformative additive technology can be in supporting traditional manufacturing. Manufacturers are under constant pressure to optimize product lines, dynamically scale up or scale back production based on demand and re-tool for new products, all while mitigating any disruptions in productivity. COVID-19 will only exaggerate these demands and 3D printing can help if it is applied in ways that maximize the benefit. Using the example of the face shields, traditional injection mold tooling has long lead times, high expense, and remains inflexible. The same thing is true for hard tooling used to support manufacturing processes. 3D printed tooling offers a way for manufacturers to ramp up fast, maintain flexibility, respond to issues on demand.
Here are some ways that manufacturers can leverage 3D printed tooling specifically in response to COVID-19 challenges:
Worker Safety- We are hearing about organizations concerned about protecting their most valuable resources.
- Customized PPE- personalized protection for operators and assemblers
- Custom Brackets for Workspace Dividers- facility modifications to protect workers
- Scaled Model Facility layout Plans- manufacturing lines will need to be spread out to comply with social distancing recommendations
- Safety Shrouds and “no touch” Color Indicators
Continuous Improvement– Some facilities are shut down or on furlough…no better time to make improvements.
- 5S Tool Organization- managing shared resources and cleaning to prevent spread
- Space Management- tool consolidation and digital tool inventory
- Smart Tooling/ De-Skilling- operational management through workforce shortages
Re-Tooling- Many customers are being asked to take on new “essential” projects requiring complete or partial re-tooling
- Digital Workflow- Surrogate parts for set up, soft tooling to roll with design changes, improvements on the fly
- Quick Change and Modular Tools- family tools, modular change kits to mitigate changeover time, complexity to make poka-yoke tooling
- Distributed Manufacturing- localized tool design with distributed manufacturing at the plant, quick response tooling changes or replacement parts
Automation– We are seeing requirements for less human interaction and mitigation of workforce health interruptions
- Faster Setup & Integration- surrogate parts, quick build modular nesting, custom grippers located off of complex geometry for more accurate placement
- Reduced Footprint- 3D printed tooling can be produced with complexity that reduces the need for space in an automation cell
- Lighter weight End of Arm Tools- 3D printed EoAT means lower cost robots, higher payloads and lower maintenance
It feels great to be able to contribute to solutions that are helping in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. I am confident that we can do even more than printing the much needed face shield headbands to have a maximum impact. Our customers are the experts on their products and I look forward to finding solutions that help them increase productivity and efficiency in what they know best. 3D printing will no doubt play a significant role in the response to COVID-19 as well as in manufacturing beyond the pandemic. Please post your thoughts and continue the conversation about how we can maximize the impact of 3D printing.
Please contact us if you’d like additional information about 3D printed Manufacturing Support Tooling or other applications. Please consider following AdvancedTek on LinkedIn for future examples and customer stories.
Matt Havekost, VP of Sales – Additive Solutions