How Manufacturers Make Face Shields and Ventilator Parts

Component makers are teaming up with designers and engineers to provide much-needed PPE for medical professionals fighting COVID-19.
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Created: 5/15/2020

Making medical equipment for COVID-19

As the race to save lives continues, CAD designers and engineers are coming forward with solutions to the shortage of parts for ventilators, PPE, and medical equipment. Many of them are turning to companies like 3D Hubs to make parts for face shields and components for ventilators and other vital medical equipment. The most common manufacturing techniques are 3D printing and CNC machining.

3D printing - a practical and portable solution

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has been with us since the early 1980s. It works by building a three-dimensional object from thin layers of material from a computer-aided design (CAD) file. The materials used come in powder, filament, pellets, or resin form. These include, but are not limited to plastics (usually Nylon, ABS, or Polyamide), wood/polymer composites (including paper), metals (usually stainless steel or titanium but gold, silver, and copper are increasingly being used), and even biomaterials (which can be used for transplants to replace diseased or missing body parts).

3D printing is meeting the immediate needs of hospitals for items such as ventilator valves. The rapid prototyping that 3D printing provides, enables manufacturers to take the printer to site and try out different designs until they find one that works. While its downsides include the weaknesses of the materials and layering methods, the developing patent thicket, and the slowness of the 3D printers for mass production, the technology is constantly improving.

CNC machining for consistent precision in mass production

Although face shields appear to be a simple piece of kit of 3-7 parts (depending on whether or not the shield can pivot up and down), they cannot be 3D printed; each part has to be cut to size using traditional methods. CNC machining enables precision milling and turning to mass produce each component. The end result is a pile of parts ready for assembly. 

CNC, or computer numerical control machining, has been in use since the late 1950s. It works by cutting and shaping objects via a series of computer-controlled machines using CAD software. These machines include mills, lathes, plasma cutters, water jets, and lasers. Automatic continuous use is CNC's greatest advantage.

It can consistently produce items of the exact same shape and size as many times as required. It also enables the rapid mass manufacturing of complex items that would otherwise take weeks to make manually. Desktop machines are available for people to use at home, and are therefore as portable as 3D machines.

The advantage of using component manufacturers is their versatility. Since they do not produce complete machines, they are free to scale parts production up or down, meeting needs as they arise. Companies that partner with them can assemble and distribute the final products. In these difficult times, this agility is vital to ensuring the availability of medical equipment where it is needed.

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