AM in the time of COVID-19

GE Additive and TriHealth convert hard hats into PPE with 3D printed adapter

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Workers at GE Additive have created a 3D printed component that transforms a hard hat into a protective face shield, which can be worn by frontline medical staff to protect against COVID-19. The face shield, created in collaboration with Ohio-based TriHealth, can help to extend the lifespan of medical-grade N95 masks, which are in critically short supply.

The GE Additive team came up with a robust 3D printed adapter part which can easily convert a standard hard hat and visor into a face shield that wraps around the wearer’s entire face, protecting it from potentially infectious droplets. The hard hat configuration is said to offer “additional protection and comfort” to doctors and nurses who will be wearing the PPE for long hours.

The face shield was developed by GE Additive after TriHealth, a Cincinnati-based healthcare provider with four acute care hospitals, reached out for help in March. “Our problem is no different from anyone else,” said Mike Waterman, process improvement director at TriHealth. “As patient volumes grow, we need to manage critical resources such as isolation gowns, N95 masks and other protective equipment, and operate on the assumption that we may not get as many as we want.”

GE Additive TriHealth face shield
(Photo: GE Additive)

A COVID-19 task force assembled by GE Additive, and consisting of a dozen engineers and experts in supply chain, legal and finance, got to work to develop the face shield in cooperation with TriHealth. One of the aims in creating the protective equipment was to find a solution that was cost-efficient and, crucially, rapidly scalable. This led the team to develop an adapter which could use existing supplies instead of developing a shield from scratch, which would be lengthy to produce. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” said Josh Mook, a Cincinnati-based innovation executive at GE Additive. “So we aimed for a solution that was scalable and cost-efficient.”

The team drew inspiration from basic pieces of equipment that healthcare professionals were using to create their own face shields, including clear visors and hard hats. The lightweight hard hats being worn also have a built-in feature that enables accessories to be mounted onto them. Based on this existing framework, the GE Additive team rapidly iterated an adapter: a part about the size of an index finger shaped a bit like a boomerang. The part is designed to fit into the lateral tab of a standard hard hat on one end, while the other end is secured with a nylon twist bolt.

“You can connect the helmet and shield in less than a minute,” added Mook. “It fits onto almost any combination of hat and shield.”

Unlike many other face shield designs, the hard hat and adapter allow the wearer to raise and lower the visor. According to GE Additive, the design is also more comfortable than many alternatives. The adapter is designed to be printed using FDM technology and ABS filament, which has heat resistant properties that make it suitable for high temperatures and chemical sterilization. Using industrial-scale FDM systems, it is possible to produce hundreds of adapters per day, as each part takes about 15 minutes to produce and several can be printed at once. GE Additive hopes to distribute the 3D model to healthcare professionals to ramp up production where needed.

In Cincinnati, the face shields are already in demand. “Around 310 of the 350 models have already been claimed,” said Waterman. “Everyone wants one: all of our four acute care hospitals, our ORs [operating rooms], our EDs [emergency departments], ENT [ear, nose and throat] group, physicians, GI specialists, cardiologists, ICUs, the ambulance surgery sites, and even pediatricians, because kids keep sneezing and coughing. They have been in use at the Bethesda North ED for several days now and we are getting good reviews.”

GE Additive TriHealth face shield
(Image: GE Additive)

Still, the question of sourcing helmets and visors remains. So far, TriHealth has found 350 helmets from an industrial supply company, though it has had trouble securing orders for the visor portion. If supplies run low on that front, GE Additive can provide laser cut visors. At the moment, TriHealth and GE Additive are also working to refine the design of the face shield, creating an extra piece that could fill the gap between the lip of the helmet and the shield for additional protection.

Learn about how other large AM companies are helping in COVID-19 relief efforts and how the additive industry is stepping up to help in this crisis.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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