As cases of COVID-19 started cropping up across the United States in March, Caroline Shaw, sourcing manager at GE Renewable Energy’s wind turbine factory in Pensacola, Florida, knew the pandemic would alter many parts of her job.
A team of her coworkers had been assigned to screen employees for fevers or other signs of infection, and her job was to keep the team supplied with proper personal protective equipment, especially N95 face masks that limit the spread of the disease. Yet Shaw knew that adding to the small supply she had on hand would mean diverting masks from doctors and nurses who were in even more dire need of protection.
“There’s a supply out there for the medical community,” Shaw says, “but we didn’t want to tap into that.”
Shaw came across a story of a couple in Virginia who were using a simple 3D printer to build plastic shields for protecting and extending the life of disposable N95 masks. Placing the protective mask shield over the N95 masks is meant to limit exposure to contaminants, potentially expanding the life of an N95 mask beyond its one-time use while supply remains constrained.
“These masks are intended to be disposable, but the CDC has guidelines on what to do in crisis situations,” Shaw said.
Shaw has experience with additive manufacturing (3D-printing) and her plant uses an industrial-grade 3D printer to make the tooling, custom-made gauges and prototype wind turbine components.
Shaw saw the idea March 22 and was able to print a prototype the next day and gave it to an on-site nurse for testing. Tiffany Craft, a senior repair engineer, heard of Shaw’s efforts and immediately began printing the mask shields.
Craft gave the shields to her emergency response team and gave some to the local hospital, and she’s also been testing multiple materials and prototyping full mask designs to provide protection. Craft’s helping build a design library where GE teams from around the world planning to 3D-print personal protection equipment can go for insights.
Soon, 20 of Shaw and Craft’s colleagues from around GE joined in the effort, coordinating their contributions to crowdsourcing improvements in the design. They included U.S.- and Hungary-based teams from GE Aviation, GE Research and GE Power.
While the initial version worked well enough, testers reported back some flaws, so designers are troubleshooting shield designs.
While additive manufacturing excels at rapid prototyping, it takes about 40 minutes to make each shield. Shaw, Craft and their colleagues are considering faster manufacturing processes that could cut production times down significantly.
News item from GE Renewable Energy