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Case Study: Printing face shields with the LAKE printer

When COVID-19 shutdowns began in March 2020, the Azul 3D team sprang into action, using its revolutionary technology to print face shields for healthcare workers.

A shortage of PPE

In March 2020, Azul 3D was in the process of building its first LAKE prototype printer, which is powered by the company’s high-area rapid printing (HARP) technology, a proprietary version of stereolithographic printing that converts liquid plastic into solid objects using ultraviolet light.

With a 10” by 12” print bed, LAKE can print mechanically robust complex geometries at competitive speeds, using proprietary materials suited for a wide range of products.

When COVID-19 began to spread throughout the country, healthcare workers faced a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), including face shields. In a survey, 27% of nurses reported they had been exposed to confirmed COVID-19 patients without wearing appropriate PPE.

The Azul 3D team knew they had a technology that could manufacture products quickly, especially in a time of crisis. They got to work designing and printing face shields.

LAKE printer

A high-speed solution

Face shields have four components: a plastic headband, a clear plastic sheet that clips into the headband, a comfort liner, and a stretchy elastic band that secures the headband to the head. With its proprietary resins, Azul 3D decided to lead the headband printing.

Within in the span of a weekend, Azul had a prototype headband that they continued to refine with the help of other 3D printing companies, as well as with the Harvard MGH COVID-19 Innovation Center.

The team rushed the production of the LAKE prototype and moved the completion schedule up by almost 6 months. The printer was completed on a Friday afternoon. By Monday morning, the LAKE prototype printer was running 12 hours a day, printing 1,000 face shields within that timespan. That meant every 6 minutes, Azul 3D was able to get 8 face shields off the printer and begin starting the next round of printing. Over the course of the first week of the LAKE prototype printer’s existence, the team printed 5,000 face shields on it.

“Even fleets of 3D printers were having difficulty meeting demand for face shields because the need was so enormous. But HARP is so fast and powerful that we could put a meaningful dent in that demand.”

- Chad Mirkin, co-founder and chair

3D-printed headbands

Keeping things cool

Part of the reason the LAKE printer can print so quickly is because of HARP technology’s unique heat dissipating technology. While every resin-based 3D printer generates heat while printing — sometimes exceeding 180 degrees — HARP solves this problem with a nonstick liquid that behaves like liquid Teflon.

While HARP projects light through a window to solidify the resin on a vertically moving plate, the liquid flows over the window to remove the heat. The liquid then circulates through a cooling unit before returning to the printer.

Azul 3D’s proprietary print interface

Getting face shields to those who need them

After the headbands were printed, Azul 3D partnered with a local manufacturing company that provided the clear plastic shields, and with a third partner to sanitize and package the face shield components into kits.

The speed of printing and local partnerships helped Azul 3D circumvent the global manufacturing and supply chain issues that prevented many healthcare facilities from receiving PPE.

By the end of June, 3,886 face shields had been shipped to hospitals, medical offices, research laboratories, nursing homes, first responders, pharmacists, outpatient nurses, skilled nursing facilities, and funeral homes in seven states. Most were sent to the Navajo Nation, which had one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the country.

“These 3D shields will be so much help!”

- Navajo Nation

A gift from actor Johnny Galecki of The Big Bang Theory helped make the project happen. Azul 3D and its partners ultimately shipped 10,000 face shields with no cost to any of the recipients.

“Thank you again for helping us protect our most vulnerable residents.”

- Nebraska Health Care Association

From start to finish, Azul 3D offers a full stack solution, partnering with manufacturers on design, materials, printing, and post-processing to ensure the process is optimized for their factory floor.

If you’re interested in learning more about Azul 3D’s technology and how it could help manufacture your consumer, industrial, or automotive goods, contact ttranpham@azul3d.com.

We’re un-imagining manufacturing to re-imagine reality.