3D printing has its moment as tech hero of a protection-hungry corona era

3D printing has its moment as tech hero of a protection-hungry corona era
A 3D-printed mask made according to the design of a maker from The Czech Republic. This design is the one preferred by the South African maker community responding to the Covid-19 crisis. (Photo supplied)

In just weeks, a scattered, non-standardised, often quirky home industry has sprung up: face-mask production. And 3D printing hobbyists have been at the forefront with real solutions and effective products.

Marius Buys prints a 3D face mask. (Photo supplied)

What some might consider a nerdy hobby — 3D printing — might well be a ready answer to the world’s enormous need for more personal protective equipment (PPE). South African 3D enthusiasts are already galvanising their pastime for the national good.

The 3D printing process builds three-dimensional objects from a computer-aided design by gradually adding construction material — often plastic — layer-by-layer.

It did not take long after the coronavirus outbreak before garage and spare-room hobbyists turned their hands and their technology to making PPE, in particular face shields.

Four makers in South Africa are currently leading an effort to consolidate the enthusiastic efforts of the 3D print community — getting producers the materials they need, keeping the efforts free of financial exploitation and ensuring masks and shields get to “the people who need them most”.

Co-ordinating team members are Bernard Vogt, Michael Scholtz, Felix Holm and Marius Buys, who came together when they individually realised people were “panic printing”.

The contribution this sector of society is making is simultaneously small and large. In an interview, Scholtz set out the complexities of 3D printing medical equipment.

Conservatively, it takes about three hours to print a face mask on a 3D printer. That means one maker, printing from her or his home somewhere in South African, might print three items a day. Each of these costs between R40 and R50 to make. The filament used to print things in 3D costs about R300 per kilogram.

There are, very roughly, between 1,000 and 2,000 hobbyists in South Africa. In a best-case scenario, they could make about 6,000 items a day.

This would be helpful to the cause of supplying PPE in South Africa, but it’s not a particularly efficient means of working, nor is it cheap, and it has other problems.

Firstly, suppliers of filament to hobbyists are not considered an essential service, so when makers run out of their raw material they can’t get more until after lockdown. Unless, of course, someone can convince someone in government to grant suppliers the right to sell filament.

Secondly, inspired perhaps by ubuntu, boredom or plain 3D nerdism, many makers started printing masks without careful consideration of all relevant factors. Who would the masks go to? How would they get there? On top of which, some individuals became distracted by debates on how to improve the designs, instead of sticking to a general call to use only one design.

Thirdly, there is an ever-present danger of financial exploitation in a time of need.

Scholtz spoke to owners of a food factory, who put him in contact with someone with an injection-mould company.

“It is too early to get hopeful, but the real potential here is for an injection-mould company to take up our design and produce masks and shields at probably about a tenth of the cost of 3D printing. Being able to mass-produce the masks would be first prize.”

Meanwhile, the hobbyists beaver on.

To try to standardise products coming out of sheds and garages across the country, it has been recommended that only a design shared by the Czeck Josef Prusa be used.

From across the country, makers have been posting pictures of finished masks and shields on a Facebook page and, by the looks of it, production increased over the Easter weekend. Community members have also posted pictures of front-line workers and first responders wearing their equipment.

Scholtz, who calls himself “a maker of things” but whose day-job is in IT, commented: “As soon as word started getting out about these masks, we were getting calls, like one from a guy who clearly had his own agenda, saying: ‘Can I buy 40,000?’ And my short answer was ‘No. We’re not selling’.”

Scholtz and his three colleagues are strongly resisting the push to monetise. Their idea is to make sure masks get to people who need them most — medical staff — in line with a socially responsible reaction to the current threat to national health and security.

Their work has gained the attention of important supporters. Business For South Africa’s Health Workgroup has said of 3D printing that “there’s definitely a lot of scope in this regard”.

“In this country we are intrinsically innovative and have a depth of research and development capability. As the Business for SA Health Workgroup, we are tapping into the innovation ecosystem and will work with them to provide efficacy guidelines for critical products and, where needed, a market for their products.”

The Water Institute of South Africa was one of first supporters and came on board to facilitate setting up collection of donations from the public. Dr Lester Goldman, CEO of WISA, has called on organisations and companies to support the effort. Apart from the filament at R300 a kilogram, various other bits and pieces are required to complete a job.

Marius Buys of AM Risk and Training has pointed out that people can help the initiative in various ways. “Not every part of the shield can be made on a 3D printer. We need the clear laminate facepieces and the elastic fasteners for the back of the head before the shields can be of any use.”

If enough money comes in, the scattered endeavours of many might be able to be consolidated in one place, perhaps in some sort of transport and/or warehouse situation — such as one in Alabama where people printing 3D masks drive through and drop their contributions in bins so they can be sanitised and sent to where they are needed.

The demand for face shields is already high and not all makers can afford to continue giving away products for free. So, negotiations are underway to open up shops.

Medical equipment is generally put through rigorous testing and approval processes but, under current circumstances, that is not possible. Orders have flooded in from hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, doctors’ rooms and emergency medical services providers. Orders for 600, 1,500 and 2,000 shields at a time have been placed with the more prolific producers.

Over Easter weekend, The Seattle Times in the US reported that a free mask designed in Seattle was the first of its kind to get federal approval.

Scholtz said: “When we realised how complex and expensive it would be for us to get blanket approval for the equipment in order for it to be used by medical staff, and all these makers were churning out this stuff and wanted to know what to do with it, someone suggested we simply give what we make to whoever in our direct communities most need them.

“Often, those are cashiers. Consider how many people cashiers see every hour in comparison to how many patients doctors see per hour. It’s a no-brainer.”

Some grocery stores have already started using counter shields or transparent face shields and masks.

“Also,” Scholtz said, “there’s the issue of transporting the masks during lockdown. We’ve suggested to members that they find out about pharmacies or shops or doctors’ rooms in their areas they can donate to. Organising transport within a small radius of your own community is not hard.”

On the group’s Facebook page, front-line workers are making contact with makers in their areas and organising pick-ups.

Since the “droplet theory” of infection emerged in the late 1800s, masks as a means of protection against infection have been debated, yet each epidemic of the 20th century has produced photographs of ordinary people and medical personnel wearing white cotton masks. 

In an environment of “rather safe than sorry” and with so much support for the practise of providing barriers between people to prevent infection, 3D masks are bound to make their mark on the Covid-19 pandemic.

The masks’ primary colours and chunky appearance might make them seem less serious than the clinical white surgical masks laypeople are used to seeing in medical environments, but that doesn’t disqualify them from defence against Covid-19. DM/MC

Anyone interested in wanting to help can send an email to [email protected] Those wishing to donate can go here.


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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