Pandemic 3D Printing: How Did We Get Here?

Allen E. Paulson College of Engineering and Computing

In March of 2020 it became evident that the COVID-19 pandemic was resulting in substantial shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Health care workers risked their lives in the care of their COVID patients by using homemade PPE devices and recycling single-use PPE devices. As the adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention and in this case, hobbyists, engineers, scientists, and medical personnel familiar with 3D printing answered the call by developing computer aided design (CAD) models and printing PPE devices for use in hospital settings. These PPE devices were initially respirators, but then extended to faceshield components and recently even nasal swabs for COVID testing. Thus far, 3D printing has proven itself to be at most a stop-gap measure to our nation’s shortage of PPE and other pandemic related resources. But why has 3D printing only been a stopgap measure and how did we get here?

Colloquially, 3D printing represents the family of manufacturing techniques in which a 3D printer uses a CAD model to “print” a physical model one layer at a time. Georgia Southern used its 3D printers to print respirators which were then evaluated at a local hospital. The printed respirators had a suboptimal fit for a generic user. Additionally, 3D printing systems have limited throughput compared to other manufacturing techniques such as injection molding. Thus, 3D printed respirators can play a short-term role in emergency situations where there are limited PPE resources available. But again, how did we get here?

Even before a 2005 national strategy for pandemic response was developed by the U.S. Homeland Security Council, both government and non-government organizations were sounding the alarm about more frequent pandemics and the need to enhance our national stockpiles of PPE and related pandemic resources. Pandemic preparedness is not something we usually think about until we are directly impacted by it.

There is a Haitian proverb, “Deye mon, gen mon.” meaning, “beyond mountains, there are mountains.” Our nation’s scientists have forecasted more frequent pandemics. And when that next pandemic comes, will we dare ask, “how did we get here?

— Wayne M. Johnson, Ph.D., Professor, Dept. of Mechanical Engineering