SA's 3D-printing community is making life-saving protective gear from home

07 April 2020 - 06:16
By sipokazi fokazi AND Sipokazi Fokazi
One of over 200 masks that have been produced by owners of 3D printers across SA to beat Covid-19 infections.
Image: Supplied One of over 200 masks that have been produced by owners of 3D printers across SA to beat Covid-19 infections.

While many are wondering what to do with their spare time during lockdown, there is a group of South Africans whose days and nights are busier than ever.

Their hobby has turned into a very worthwhile way to make a difference during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In garages around the country, 3D printers are whirring and buzzing, printing reusable masks, screens and even unique valves that will allow our limited supply of ventilators to be shared between four patients at a time.

The arrival of Covid-19 in South Africa spurred the 3D-printing community to step forward to “collectively help the frontline, unsung heroes such as emergency workers, pharmacists and other vulnerable groups,” said Johannesburg-based IT consultant Michael Scholtz.

The 3D-printing fanatic is one of the coordinators of this community project.

In an effort to flatten the curve of the virus, Scholtz said those with 3D printers have come together to provide basic protective equipment directly to those who need it.

The project - formed by three members of the 3D-printing community shortly before the lockdown began - has already grown to include more than 200 people, each with his or her own 3D printer.

More than 200 masks and face shields have been produced so far.

“The sooner we can get the spread of this virus under control and secure the safety of every South African, the sooner we can get this country back on track, return to work and business, and build an economy that can thrive, as a unified nation,” said Scholtz.

Although the gear has gone through quality-control measures and can be re-used and sterilised, Scholtz said it is not meant for medical use, “but rather for personal protection and to alleviate strain”.

“The idea is not to replace certified protective equipment, but the thinking behind these masks is to alleviate the strain on resources, which we see all around the world. We are not necessarily advocating health workers who work in very high-risk areas such as medical wards to wear them as they are not certified for medical use, but essentially we are targeting other low-risk frontline workers, such as emergency workers who may be exposed to the virus through their work,” he said.

Scholtz said one of the biggest challenges for the 3D producers so far has been a lack of filament, a key ingredient used to make the protective equipment. Even though Additive Manufacturing Solutions, which supplies filament to the producers at cost, this is still not enough.

Scholtz said some 3D producers are currently unable to produce anything as many suppliers are closed due to lockdown.

This face-shield band is being 3D-printed in SA to help beat Covid-19.
Image: Supplied This face-shield band is being 3D-printed in SA to help beat Covid-19.

Bernhard Vogt, managing director of Additive Manufacturing Solutions, said: “It is a great feeling to be able to make a positive contribution at this time.

“The need for personal protection equipment in our hospitals and clinics is already greater than the supply available, so the 3D-printing community is providing a vital service.”

“Orders are pouring in,” said Jaco Seaman, a 3D-printing hobbyist who until now had used his printer mainly for making cookie cutters, chocolate moulds and model train parts.

“Yesterday in just one hour I picked up requests for 1,200 masks and shields from hospitals around the country.”

The Water Institute of South Africa (Wisa) – where Jaco works – has stepped up to facilitate the collection of donations from the general public.

“Wisa exists because life is not possible without water,” said the institute's CEO Dr Lester Goldman. “So it makes perfect sense for us to embrace this initiative as a CSI project and to help save lives in another way.”

“This is a time when we need all hands on deck, so I challenge other organisations and companies to step up to the plate and support this initiative,” added Goldman.

Scholtz said fulfilling orders is posing a logistical challenge given the limitations of the lockdown. “The other big need that we have is for a courier company who could manage the warehouse and delivery process. We need to get the filament to the printers – we are all running out – and we need to get the devices to our emergency health workers as soon as possible.”

Anyone wanting to donate funds should either download the Chips app and scan the QR code or pay directly into the Chips account via EFT. More details are on the 3D Community website.

Companies wanting to help can also contact