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Reflection - 3D Printed Emergency PPE For The NHS

March 2020 brought the biggest health crisis the world had seen in over 100 years, COVID-19 was starting to take hold, and it became clear that the UK wasn't ready for what was to come.

Wednesday 23rd September 2020


March 2020 brought the biggest health crisis the world had seen in over 100 years, COVID-19 was starting to take hold, and it became clear that the UK wasn't ready for what was to come.

Following on from my original post back in April, this is the story of 8,000+ volunteers coming together from all across the UK to provide 200,000 3D printed PPE Face Shields for the NHS, GPs, Pharmacies & Care Homes.

All of this was made possible through the donations though personal and national fundraisers. My personal fundraiser reached £1,540.

3D Crowd was the driving organisation behind the project, providing a national coordination and communication structure to quickly and efficiently get materials to the right place at the right time.

We quickly settled on the "RC3" face shield design from Prusa Research in the Czech Republic. Their design wasn't the fastest to print, but it met the crucial safety standards that this kind of PPE needs to conform to. Each frame took around 1.5 to 3 hours to print, so we needed to make sure our printers were working 24/7.

Other designs did exist, such as the Verkstan design from Sweden, which printed far quicker but didn't meet the relevant safety standards. We needed to strike a balance between safety, comfort and production time. After all, doctors would be wearing these for 12 hours at a time. The thin Verkstan design resulted in too much pressure on the wearers head.

The Road to 8,000 Volunteers

3D Crowd rapidly gained members from all over the UK, so we needed a way to coordinate everything. We settled on a regional approach, whereby volunteers would be producing shields & fulfilling orders for their local area. This cut down on long journeys, and saved on shipping too.

At this point, it's worth pointing out that everyone was volunteering their time, skills and resources, and in a lot of cases using their own money too. The organisation structure was as follows:

  • National Coordinator
  • Regional Coordinators
    • Sub-Regional Coordinators for larger Regions, such as Scotland
  • Makers
  • Drivers/Transport

I was the Regional Coordinator for Glasgow & surrounding areas. At the height of our operation, we had daily zoom calls with regional coordinators, to identify areas that needed extra resources and support, in addition to arranging inter-region transport where required. This approach provided everyone in the group with a single point of contact, allowing for a more coherent conversation and prevented calls from becoming too crowded.

My job included a variety of roles, here's what I can remember:

  • Identify makers with printed parts & arrange for collection of these
  • Identify orders which we could fulfil, with over 10,000 orders on some days we needed to prioritise some requests over others
  • Inspect, clean, packaged and prepare orders for shipment
    • Every 3D printed frame needed inspected for defects, these were going into hospitals after all
    • Every 3D printed frame needed sterilised, and visors washed too
    • In the early days most visors were made from clear A4 binder covers. Every one of these needed holes punched to attach to the frame, corners rounded, and then sterilised.
    • Button-hole elastic was cut down to 40cm lengths and packaged with every shield
    • Of course this wouldn't be complete without some paperwork! It was important to keep track of where frames were coming from and where they were going, in case a volunteer later tested positive for the virus.
  • Arrange transport to get the orders where they needed to be, coordinating a time with multiple parties and planning efficient routes often visiting over 20 locations in one day.
  • Ensuring makers had the materials required to keep their printers going, more on that later...
  • Not forgetting to operate 3 of my own printers continuously all day every day!

Thankfully the roads weren't too busy. This was in the middle of lockdown afterall.

Materials & Logistics!

It became clear early on we were going to face major challenges in sourcing materials for the shields. Most factories had closed down, and the ones that remained open were swamped with orders, delaying shipments.

The face shields consisted of 3 main components:

  • Frame - PLA or PETG Filament
  • Visor - Clear acetate or PETG plastic, 250-750 microns thick
  • Elasic - Button-hole, cut to lengths of 40cm

Filament quickly doubled in price, from a pre-pandemic £20/Kg to well over £40/Kg on some occasions. With stocks so low it went to the highest bidder. We tried to buy this in bulk so as to reduce costs, with a lot of it imported form abroad.

Visors were the most challenging piece of the puzzle, I don't think A4 binder covers have ever, or will ever, be as popular as they were between March and July. The sold out rapidly, though their price thankfully didn't increase too much. 3D Crowd organised for large-scale production of these using sheet plastic, despite being expensive this was the most efficient way to get visors to the front line.

Button-hole elastic also sold out very quickly. A big thanks to Fabric Bazaar in Glasgow for over 2 miles of the stuff which kept most of Scotland going!

Once we sourced the materials, it was up to me to packaged up the orders as described above. We utilised the collection & delivery runs to also move filament to where it was needed

How Much Did it all Cost?

In April, a complete face shield could be produced for around £1.20, however as filament prices increased this became closer to £2/piece.

With almost 200,000 face shields delivered across the UK, it puts the total bill around £300,000 to £400,000. This wouldn't have been possible without the donations from thousands of people across the country.

Orders ready for dispatch, as well as a 1000x binder covers waiting to be hole-punched and have their corners cut.

The Scottish Story

Across Scotland we delivered over 26,500 face shields to Hospitals, GPs, Pharmacies, Care Homes and Homecare centres.

We fulfilled 258 orders, and at the peak we had 384 volunteers.

I organised a direct link with the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, where we provided over 6,000 shields.

Delivering a trolly-full of frames to the Maxillofacial Lab at the Queen Elizabeth.

The Reflection

Whilst I certainly wouldn't want to do this again, this provided an amazing opportunity to provide a meaningful contribution to hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers all across the country, and seeing everyone come together to meet a common goal.

This is a learning experience I'll never forget, and gave an insight into a rapidly-growing organisation and the challenges faced, as well as the processes to overcome them.

Though this endeavour I also logged over 260 hours of volunteering with Saltire Awards, and I hope to continue volunteering in other settings to achieve 500 hours before I graduate from University in 3 years time.

All that's left to say is a massive "Thank You" to everyone who donated their time, expertise, resources and money to make all of this possible.


September 2020