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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Charlotteans Deploy 3D Printers To Fill Medical Equipment Shortage

One of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library's 3D printers produces a batch of face shield parts.
Aubrey Hedrick
One of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library's 3D printers produces a batch of face shield parts.

3D printers are humming across the Charlotte area this week, making protective equipment for health care workers. The state, like many in the U.S., has a shortage of masks, face shields and other supplies because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Two printers now occupy an upstairs room of Aubrey Hedrick’s townhome. Hedrick and three other Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library staff members relocated the library system’s eight 3D printers last week just before Mecklenburg County’s stay-at-home order took effect.

“The printers I have are from the main library uptown," Hedrick said. "We sometimes have individuals when they’re in the library they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a little robot singing to you!’ It is kind of like a little robot song, I guess.” 

The printers, as well as those in her coworkers’ homes, are now making parts for face shields, clear plastic guards health care workers wear to protect themselves from exposure to pathogens like the coronavirus. Prusa, a printer company, has made a pattern for 3D printed face shields available online with three main components: a plastic headband or visor that attaches the shield to a health care provider’s head, a clear plastic shield that covers their face and a plastic brace that lines the shield’s bottom edge. 

Hedrick estimated her machines can each print a batch of 16 bottom braces in around 12 hours.

“I can start something when I first get up, let it run throughout the day," she said. "It’ll typically finish in the evening. I can take that stuff off, start another print that’ll print overnight while I’m sleeping.” 

The group Charlotte MEDI – Medical Emergency Device Innovation – is coordinating creative efforts to produce personal protective equipment across the metro area. Charlotte Latin School is 3D printing in its Fab Lab as well as laser cutting clear plastic for face shield parts. Local company Texlon Plastics Corp. has developed an injection mold for the headband component that it anticipates will speed up production.

MEDI also has a 3D printing guide on its website for others who want to help.

When the pieces are finished, MEDI team members pick them up, sanitize them and assemble the shields to donate. The group has delivered about 900 shields to health care workers, according to its website.

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.