COVID-19

Army of 3D printers battles Britain’s shortage of PPE

Stephen Beard Apr 23, 2020
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A nurse wears personal protective gear outside a London hospital. Activists with 3D printers are manufacturing items to address the U.K.'s shortage. Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Army of 3D printers battles Britain’s shortage of PPE

Stephen Beard Apr 23, 2020
A nurse wears personal protective gear outside a London hospital. Activists with 3D printers are manufacturing items to address the U.K.'s shortage. Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
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In the battle against COVID-19, a shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, in the U.K.’s National Health Service is causing scandal and outrage.  Gowns, masks and visors are in short supply, putting the lives of front-line medical staff at risk. The U.K.’s main nursing union and professional body, the Royal College of Nursing, has even told its members to refuse to treat patients if the nurses have not been given the right protective equipment.

But various private and charitable projects are underway to make up the shortfall.

British health-care workers wearing homemade face visors. (Photo courtesy the Grilli family)

One family in north London has embarked on a mission to manufacture as many face visors as it can to donate them to hospitals, care homes and doctor’s offices. Christopher Grilli and his wife, Emily, have turned their small, pleasant, wisteria-clad house into a minifactory equipped with 3D printing machines.

“Come through here into what used to be our living room,” Grilli said as he ushered me into a small front room. “You can probably hear the printers whirring away.”

Emily and Christopher Grilli (Photo by Stephen Beard)

The TV, sofa and chairs had been removed, and a piano pushed to one side, to make way for 10 3D printers, all churning out the plastic headbands that hold the transparent visors in place.

Grilli, a technical designer with the Nissan car company, owns two of the printers. The other machines, costing around $250 apiece, were donated by friends. Crowdfunding has paid for the materials, and the Grilli family supplies the labor — around the clock.

“Yeah, we’ve been working through the night,” Christopher said. “Getting up, sharing our shifts. It’s like feeding the baby again. We’ve had three children already. It’s like that all over again, except we don’t have to change any diapers.”

“Changing printers instead of diapers,” Emily chipped in.

The Grillis’ minifactory is producing around 1,000 single-use visors a week, which they’re handing over for free to local hospitals and, on occasion, to individual health-care workers who turn up, distressed, on their doorstep. 

“We’ve had nurses on our driveway, crying in tears … of fear and then joy when we give them 10 face visors,” Christopher recalled. “It’s been awful to watch them but really gratifying to give them what they need.”  

Many hundreds of people across the U.K. have been stirred into charitable action during the coronavirus crisis. A firm called Electrocomponents, which distributes industrial and electronic products, launched a national call to arms, urging anyone with a 3D printer to join the new PPE cottage industry.

Mike Bray of Electrocomponents (Photo courtesy Mike Bray)

“We’ve seen all sorts of people respond,” Mike Bray, Electrocomponents’ vice-president in charge of innovation, told Marketplace. “People who are  running businesses have contacted us. We’ve seen schools take up the call to arms. We’ve seen individuals from across our local communities, across the U.K., who’ve all got 3D printers, are all supporting this.”

Another organizer, Mason Rowbottom of the National 3D Printing Society, says at least 1,750 printers have been enlisted. Each one is capable of making 40 visor headbands a day, providing production capacity of at least 70,000 headbands a day. 

Mason Rowbottom of the National 3D Printing Society with a 3D-printed figurine.
(Photo courtesy Mason Rowbottom)

That’s more than  2  million a month. In addition, Christopher Grilli’s employer, Nissan, has joined the effort and is manufacturing another 100,000 visors a week. 

Which prompts the question: is Britain now headed for a visor glut?  

 No way, insist Christopher and Emily Grilli. They say that  almost limitless supplies of single-use visors may be required, so long as the virus remains a threat. And not just in hospitals and care homes. They believe that when the lockdown is lifted, many employers may demand that their staff members  wear the protective equipment when working in close proximity with one another.

“We are going to keep our 3D printers going for the foreseeable future,” Christopher said. “So long as we can keep paying the electricity bill, we won’t stop.”

COVID-19 has fostered this new cottage industry. With the atomization of the workforce under lockdown — and the dislocation of supply chains — the 3D printer has come into its own. It’s another unexpected effect of the pandemic.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out recently from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

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