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Why Can’t 3D Printing Do it All?

Posted on Apr 21, 2020 by Cullen Hikene

The COVID-19 crisis continues to be a seminal moment for the additive manufacturing, 3D printing industry as a number of job shops and individuals come to the aid of healthcare workers by 3D printing face shields. A number of headlines highlight philanthropic individuals who have set out to respond to the crisis by 3D printing face shields—rather aspects of face shields as we will discuss—and delivering them to frontline healthcare workers. This response has been tremendous and now extends well into the ranks of corporations. With the ubiquity of 3D printers, the question might cross your mind, “Why don’t we just 3D print everything?” Masks respirators, the whole nine yards? The answer to this question is manifold and we will touch on the reasons in this post.

Before we get into the reasons 3D printing isn’t capable of solving this crisis single-handedly, it is important to know 3D printing has played a valuable role. You can read more about how and why 3D printing has had a positive impact in our previous post, The One Obvious and Two Very Subtle Ways 3D Printing is Helping the COVID-19 Response.

Quality Limitations of 3D Printing

The first thing holding 3D printing back from delivering items such as respirators and masks is the quality of parts readily achievable on 3D printers. This technology was primarily designed as a prototyping technology where certain elements of repeatability were not as critical to the manufacturer as it might be with other technologies more commonly associated with production volumes. This is not to say that there are not production  3D printing technologies. GE has printed quantities using laser powder bed fusion additive manufacturing. Lima Corporate as printed hip implants with electron beam powder bed fusion. Both of those corporations have extensively dialed in and locked on certain parameter sets for the building of those parts on their machines. In the current day, the ability to ensure the same output from one machine to the next is a very difficult thing to guarantee. The net effective this is that printing a lot of respirator parts, while technically possible, doesn’t necessarily mean those parts will all fit together properly when the build is complete. That’s especially the case when talking about some of the home 3D printing equipment rightfully winning air time on nightly news segments since the crisis began.  

Material Limitations

The second thing holding 3D printing back is material invitations. One thing you may have noticed is when you read about people 3D printing face shields it is more accurately people 3D printing headbands with mylar or acrylic mass-produced shields affixed to them. Printing transparent polyethylene shields is not currently possible with 3D printers. There are clear 3D printed resins, and there are machines capable of printing polyethylene, but the underlying process results in a clear shield not compatible with the 3D printing processes as we know them. As a result, 3D printing may not be able to necessarily provide the shields in the most appropriate materials.

Cost Limitations

A hindrance to 3D printing all components is cost. As discussed, 3D printing has been repeatedly featured for delivering face shields to frontline healthcare workers, but what is perhaps not fully celebrated is that virtually all of these shields are being donated. Individuals are occupying their machines for hours on end printing these parts, using up whatever filament they have, and  doing their own labor to assemble the finished shields. This processing system works because of the generosity and philanthropy of individuals. In actuality, achieving a price point at scale that compares to the few dollars per shield that the market currently is offering would be to manufacture the headbands using injection molding. Where there is an opportunity for 3D printing to provide an ongoing benefit is in custom sizing these shields for different individuals instead of printing an adjuster strap. As seen, that process flow is not the one being used.

Summary

3D printing face shields has had a very valuable moment in the spotlight. Add a critical moment when supply chains were unable to get PPE to frontline healthcare workers, 3D printers, and more importantly, the individuals who happen to own 3D printers stepped up and were able to make an instant impact on a very challenging situation. As the rhythm of this crisis has become more normalized, the opportunities for 3D printing have diminished. That is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future while 3D printing continues to tighten up on dimensions of quality, reliability, speed, material availability, and cost.

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