Workers in Fabrication Lab.

The Graduate School of Design’s Fabrication Lab facilities have 100 3D printers working to produce much-needed personal protective equipment for area hospitals.

Photos by Chris Hansen/GSD

Science & Tech

Design School turns 3D printers into PPE producers

4 min read

Expects to have 1,000 face shields by end of week

The Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) began production of personal protective equipment (PPE) on Sunday, delivering its first run of 90 face shields to Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) on Tuesday.

With more than 100 3D printers set up in the School’s Gund Hall, state-of-the-art fabrication technologies, and expert guidance from across Harvard University, the GSD is creating PPE for frontline medical personnel at area hospitals. The School expects to have produced components for about 1,000 face shields by the end of this week.

The GSD estimates that it can produce about 3,500 3D-printed, polylactic acid (PLA) visors, and about 800 laser-cut polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG) face shields, with the materials currently available at the School. Chris Hansen, 3D fabrication specialist, and GSD Fabrication Lab colleagues are now seeking additional sources of supply. The GSD plans to produce the visors and face-shields as separate components, and to deliver them to Sherry Yu, coordinator of PPE Innovation and Conservation Workgroup in Logistics in Incident Command at BWH, for assembly and distribution.

GSD efforts have been orchestrated by Stephen Ervin, assistant dean for information technology, and Hansen, in addition to GSD faculty and Harvard partners, which include the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard Medical School, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

With design guidance from Eric Höweler, associate professor in architecture, and Martin Bechthold, Kumagai Professor of Architectural Technology and director of Harvard’s Master in Design Engineering program, Hansen produced a face-shield prototype and determined the design could be effectively fabricated with the GSD’s 3D printers and laser-cutting equipment. After the face-shield design had been tested in a clinical trial at BWH, the School moved forward.

“Few would have thought that one day we would leverage these resources to assist in fighting a pandemic, and yet that is exactly what the GSD’s Fabrication Lab is engaging in, along with many similar facilities across the country,” Bechthold says. “Schools, institutions, private companies, and individuals have come together in an often improvised, ad-hoc manner, driven by the conviction that this challenge can be overcome if we leverage the human imagination, think outside the box, and reach out beyond our comfort zone.”

Materials to make PPE.
Machinery making masks.

The Graduate School of Design estimates that it can produce about 3,500 3D-printed visors and about 800 face shields with the materials currently available at the School.

“Fortunately, the maker movement has created a decentralized, rapid-prototyping network for small quantity production of components,” Höweler says. “Social networks were able to rally resources, and volunteers stepped up. It has been remarkable to see a flood of people wanting to help.”

Alongside the ongoing Mass General Brigham’s Center for COVID Innovation (MGBCCI) and BHW conversations, Hansen and colleagues have fielded inquiries and considerations from the city of Boston, MIT, and other Harvard Schools regarding production and prototyping of materials and equipment.

“In terms of production, we are well positioned to contribute in a meaningful way,” Hansen says. “There’s a lot happening in tandem, with ever-changing needs and priorities from health care providers. We are working to be as nimble as possible within the larger Harvard community to ensure that whatever effort and resources we do contribute are meaningful and impactful.”

While campus buildings remain generally closed, the GSD has worked to ensure safety standards and industrial-hygiene protocols for staff who have been permitted to enter the GSD’s Gund Hall-based Fabrication Lab.

Alongside their work on PPE face protection, Hansen and GSD Research Associate Saurabh Mhatre have also been advising a working group focused on creating prototypes of innovative PPE for full-body protection.

“This is the first pandemic of the ‘jet age,’” Höweler observes, “but it’s also the first pandemic of the ‘digital fabrication age,’ where expertise and open-source content moves freely, and individuals are networked for a common cause. It may turn out to be the thing that brings us together in different ways.”