How 3D Printers Can Help — And How They Can’t

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Doing nothing is really, really hard. For awhile I thought this was unique to me, but I’ve come to realize that loads of people are just like me. If something is wrong, I want to fix it by doing something. If the only way to fix it is to do nothing, well, it leaves me in a state of perpetual anxiety as my stupid monkey brain screams at me to TAKE ACTION NOW. It’s one of the reasons why I hate losing weight. Eating less is faster and more effective than exercising more but I don’t want the solution to just be sitting here, being hungry. If only there were something I could eat that would fix my back problems. Something like a cake, or a pie maybe. But alas, sitting there and not doing something is the best solution.

It’s the same for our current pandemic. Unless you are a doctor or other medical personnel, the best thing you can do right now for yourself, your loved ones, and society as a whole is to just stay home. Don’t go out shopping for nonessentials. Don’t run to Safeway and buy all the paper products you see. Don’t go to parties. Don’t go to bars. Don’t invite a friend or two over to catch up. Just sit there and read a book, or play a video game.

That’s not what we see in our media when disaster strikes, though. We see someone who takes action, who does something when all around him others do nothing. Our games and books and movies and TV shows model what a “hero” looks like and let’s face it, seeing someone sitting quietly in their living room putting together a jigsaw puzzle isn’t the most engrossing narrative.

So it makes sense that when someone came up with the idea to 3D print some of the things doctors are missing, like ventilator parts, people leapt at the chance to help. That’s human nature, and it’s the best of human nature. 

There are a couple of things related to this that I want you to be skeptical of, despite the warm and fuzzy feelings. I promise I won’t ruin too much. 

First, original reporting stated that Italian makers had 3D printed a ventilator part for pennies that would have cost $10,000, and the reporting further stated that the makers were being threatened with patent lawsuits by the company that made the ventilator. I’m not sure how any of that got past an editor because you know medical shit is overpriced here in the US but there’s no way a single piece of a ventilator would run 10 grand in Italy. Sure enough, that part was untrue, as was the part about the company threatening to sue them. The company didn’t give them the files so they had to reverse engineer it, which is stupid and fucked up, but they didn’t threaten to sue.

A company did threaten to sue the makers of COVID-19 tests (in a time when we desperately need as many tests as possible) using patents they got from the failed bullshit startup Theranos, of all things. Read up on that if all the pandemic news isn’t already making you want to give up on humanity.

Anyway, now we have efforts like Project Open Air, which is a group of people trying to make an open source ventilator, which is awesome. There are also people printing other parts that medical professionals need. If you have a 3D printer and want to help, check out this Google doc where you can sign up to let hospitals in your area know that you’re available.

I know what you may be thinking: what about N-95 face masks? Previously I talked about how many medical professionals are working without protective equipment, not necessarily because of citizens hoarding them but because of a complete lack of preparedness on the part of our government. So why not print some of those? Even the president of Mass General put out a plea for 3D printed masks.

Here’s where I need to burst some bubbles. Naomi Wu, an awesomely talented maker in Shenzhen I’ve talked about in the past, points out on Twitter that it’s just not feasible to make N-95 masks with a 3D printer. As I’ve discussed in the past, N-95 masks are important because they completely seal off your nose and mouth so any air you breathe must be pulled through the filter. If the seal isn’t perfect, you’ll be pulling air in through the gaps, which destroys the entire point.

Plastic masks need to be formed to the user’s face, which makes 3D printing them way harder than simply sewing them out of cloth, which easily conforms to a face. Yet still, we have companies like this one pushing their “antimicrobial” plastic and claiming that you can use their product to print N-95 masks. Makers tried them and found that they were worthless. Sure, you can take a blow dryer to them to try to mold them better to your face, but if you wear them for more than a few minutes you will end up with a lake of sweat pooling at the bottom because the mask is non absorbent plastic, not fabric.

It is possible to 3D print other things, including face shields that medical personnel can use to extend the life of their masks. But if you wanna make a mask, you should break out your sewing machine. Luckily, that’s just what some fashion designers like Christian Siriano are doing, though they can’t currently make N-95 masks (medical personnel also need surgical masks, so it’s still helpful).

I wonder why I haven’t seen as much groundswell for people to sew masks, and honestly I think the reason is that the “maker” community is maybe a little more interested in cutting edge technology than in the OG maker shit, like sewing and knitting. And yeah, I suspect that there’s something to the fact that we tend to see sewing and knitting as female activities, and 3D modeling and printing as male activities, which is why people tend to get more excited by the latter.

Whatever the case may be, don’t fall for scams like the 3D-printed N95 mask that is more cosplay than real. Listen to the scientists studying these things to know what they need and if you can help.

If you don’t have a 3D printer and if you don’t have any other way to help, know that you are making a difference just by staying home. Doing nothing helps. You are a hero. Yes, you, laying on the sofa eating chips and watching YouTube videos. Keep up the great work!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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