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Layer by layer, 3D printers boost Japan coronavirus mask supply

Shared designs also help make face shields, but regulation a hurdle for ventilators

Tokyo based startup Japan Medical Company began producing face shields using 3D printers.

TOKYO -- The coronavirus pandemic has thrust fresh attention onto the use of 3D printers as users try to find a low-cost and small-scale route to create much-needed supplies of face masks, face shields and even ventilators.

Kyorindo Drug Store, a Japanese chain, recently purchased two 3D printers costing about $900 each so it can produce masks for employees at its headquarters in Shizuoka Prefecture. "We are doing what we can so that there will be more supplies available for our customers," a spokesperson said.

The company, which operates 84 stores, has been giving staff one surgical mask per day since the outbreak hit Japan. In the first week or so since it started printing masks in mid-April it has created over 50 of them. The printers -- which produce three-dimensional shapes layer by layer using materials such as plastics -- make the frames. The fabrics and elastics are then attached by hand. The company is also considering using 3D printers to manufacture face shields for store employees.

Kyorindo is not the only business getting creative at a time of shortages. While many big companies have started producing face masks and sanitizers, 3D printing is enabling those with fewer resources to get into the game. Even bigger companies, such as Nissan Motor, have started making face shields with 3D printing equipment.

The pandemic has helped to "show the benefit of 3D printers to immediately put ideas into shape," said Tatsuya Yabana, president and CEO of Iguazu, a Japanese company that sells 3D printers. Iguazu's free designs for face masks, used by Kyorindo, have been downloaded 22,000 times in a month.

Kiyokazu Nakajima, a professor at the Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine, has led a project to design and share data among anyone making 3D-printed face shields. Cafes, universities and museums are among 60 entities that have expressed interest in using Nakajima's design to produce face shields. Other parties might also be utilizing the open data.

Face shields are often used by healthcare workers. It is Nakajima's hope that the many companies or individuals in Japan and globally that own 3D printers can "print face shields and bring them to local hospitals," he said.

"This can be done without logistics," Nakajima added. Osaka University Hospital itself uses 3D printed face shields produced from the professor's lab and by a contributor in Kyoto.

The global community of 3D printer owners has been sharing data and improving one another's designs. In Britain, over 7,000 3D printer owners signed up with 3DCrowd UK to produce and donate face shields.

Japanese 3D printer vendor Iguazu developed and shared a design for face masks. 

"I originally shared the how-to-make video in English for Western audiences," since supply shortages were more serious outside Japan in countries such as the U.S. and Italy, Nakajima said. But the focus shifted to Japan as pressure on medical institutions rose after the number of coronavirus patients increased rapidly.

For all its promise, 3D printing remains laborious: It can take a few hours to make a single mask. That means the technique is so far more suitable for smaller scale businesses and hospitals.

And while the manufacturing of masks or face shields does not require licensing, entry hurdles are high when it comes to more complicated medical equipment.

Naoyuki Ishikita, a doctor at Niigata Hospital in northern Japan, has developed a ventilator that can be produced using 3D printers. The project is supported by experts, including those from Hiroshima University and the University of Tsukuba. But it still needs to go through the lengthy and costly process of obtaining approvals from Japan's Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency. The project is seeking donations to cover that cost.

Startup Japan Medical Company, which produces medical equipment and models using 3D printing, said it was also considering making face masks or ventilators with the technology. It is already producing and donating face shields to medical institutions.

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