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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

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

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

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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