It seems that Shapeways has a unique advantage over some other ventures attempting to provide 3D printed PPE to address the crisis.
The company is one of the older operations in the 3D print space, and perhaps the very first to address the needs of the general public by creating a friendly interface by which anyone could order prints. They subsequently attracted a large number of designers to market their 3D designs through the Shapeways platform.
3D Print Companies In The Crisis
Since the beginning of the global crisis caused by COVID-19 many 3D printer operators have attempted to contribute to the solution in any way possible. While there are many excellent efforts in this area, there are plenty of ill-thought-out ventures that may even be causing more harm than good.
Most ventures are attempting to produce face shields, mask straps and other simple items. A few are attempting the highly complex task of producing ventilators, which medical authorities are surely to question.
One of the biggest challenges facing DIY 3D printed PPE ventures turns out to have nothing to do with 3D printing: these particular PPE components are easily 3D printed, and there are multiple designs to choose from, some even being approved by a medical authority.
The problem is more in providing safe collection and distribution of parts to institutions that actually require them. This requires a level of organization that many DIY 3D printer operators producing PPE components don’t have access to. One group in Huntsville, Alabama seem to have figured out how to do this, and it’s not easy.
Shapeways COVID-19 Actions
Like many companies have done, Shapeways has reshaped their operations to react to the crisis. They say:
”In late March, as COVID-19 started to spread in the US, the Shapeways team began receiving a flurry of calls from hospitals across the U.S. asking for personal protective equipment (PPE) for doctors, nurses and other staff treating patients infected with the coronavirus. Almost immediately, it became apparent that the biggest unmet PPE need for hospital staff that 3D printing could address was face shields, which protect against flying respiratory droplets from sneezes and coughs that can transmit coronavirus.”
They obtained clearance to keep their NYC factory operational — but only to produce PPE. They received approval to produce the now well-known Prusa RC1 face shield design and are building them on demand for clients. Shapeways says they can produce more than 1000 per day.
However, Shapeways’ production facilities use high-end commercial 3D printing equipment and materials, and thus their costs to produce the PPE components are far higher than what would be found by a DIY producer, especially when you understand that most of the DIY parts are donated free of charge.
Shapeways found the Prusa design would cost around US$40 to produce on their equipment, far more than the price of typical mass-produced components, at least before the crisis began. They did some rework on the design and managed to bring the price down to US$29 per piece. They say:
“When we started producing the Prusa RC1 face shield, this cost us $40 to produce each unit. Based on feedback we have received from hospital workers, we are now working on the 6th iteration of our face shield. We have five engineers constantly working on the design of the model to optimize for cost and to improve the efficiency and comfort of these face shields.
We’ve made substantial progress in printing the highest quality shields possible and in getting costs down so that we can print as many shields as possible. We were able to drive the cost down to $29 per unit and will continue to improve this as much as possible. We also welcome anyone to share with us low-cost solutions that we could produce using 3D printing technology.”
You’d wonder why a medical institution would bother ordering these components from Shapeways at US$29 when there are people donating them at no charge. That doesn’t make any financial sense.
Except that it does make sense.
The issue is that while it is possible for a DIY 3D printer operator to make parts at zero cost, most areas are disorganized in collection and distribution, particularly when you see the level of sophistication required for volume delivery as performed in Huntsville.
Shapeways’ advantage here is that they already have a complete ordering and distribution system in place: that’s their normal course of business! They merely needed to offer the PPE components on their existing platforms and accept orders.
Thus it is easy for a hospital to simply hit the Shapeways site and place an order — just as it was to order a plastic dragon months ago. Everything is in place to accept the order, print the item, check the quality, package it up and deliver it. No additional organizational steps are required; it’s already there!
They also note, regarding the cost:
“Shapeways efforts to support the fight against COVID-19 are being done at cost. We can not provide these free of charge so we are looking for alternative ways to fund these efforts. Last week we launched a crowdfunding campaign to further expand our face shield production efforts and Shapeways will fund 1 for every 4 face shields purchased through the crowdfunding campaign. This campaign, driven by our amazing community, helped us to produce over 3,000 face shields and counting.”
Why Order From Shapeways?
There’s another reason for Shapeways’ popularity, and it has to do with how healthcare is organized in the United States. Unlike every other civilized country in the world, there is no centralized health authority.
The United States does not have a healthcare system, it has a healthcare sector.
That sector is composed of multiple groups operating more or less independently and thus it is exceedingly difficult to react in a coordinated manner. Thus you find separate healthcare operations attempting to source their own emergency materials, and that’s not easy to do, especially in these times.
But they can very easily hit Shapeways up for an order, and that’s what they’re doing.
It might be a good idea for any other 3D print services to do the same.