3D Printing: PPE, Plastics and Sustainability

Using 3D printing to make PPE and reduce long-term environmental impacts of manufacturing.

Demand for many types of personal protective equipment (PPE) surged during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving communities and professionals dealing with shortages. To provide support during this unprecedented time, many manufacturers responded by pivoting their workforces and infrastructure to make medical supplies. Some got creative, turning to 3D printing to produce PPE like plastic face masks and shields.

What is 3D printing and how does it work?

3D printing uses a digital rendering and various other materials to make a three-dimensional, solid object.

It requires a 3D model of an object created with modeling software or downloaded from a 3D printing design library. Software then slices the model into horizontal layers that are then “printed” layer by layer by a 3D printer, typically made from plastic filament (otherwise known as “thread”). The printed layers result in the three-dimensional, solid object.

From plastic to PPE

Many companies, schools and even individual tech enthusiasts have used 3D printers and plastic to help generate PPE quickly, particularly face shields. The process has proved to be efficient and cost effective, while also helping to reduce waste.

To help create this PPE, companies like Dow released free open-source designs for anyone interested in creating lightweight, reusable face shields on their own 3D printers. Others like ExxonMobil worked with colleges to develop and produce face shields that can be sterilized and worn multiple times.

What are the benefits of 3D printing?

3D printing is often used to test prototypes, allowing companies to design and test products at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional product design processes.

From a sustainability standpoint, 3D printing has the potential to reduce the environmental impact of traditional manufacturing processes by reducing waste. 3D printing is sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing, because as items are created, material is added only when it’s needed. In contrast, traditional manufacturing processes are subtractive, meaning the process begins with more material than necessary and excess material is removed to create the product, often resulting in waste.

Many manufacturers believe that the current 3D printing trend will grow and supplement standard manufacturing processes. This means that more product design and manufacturing would be done at a local level, closer to the end user of products. Not only will this likely save money, it will also reduce the amount of fuel used and emissions released into the environment when transporting goods between locations.

Another potential environmental benefit of 3D printing is that the printing filament can be made from recycled plastic. Companies like ReflowRePLAy 3D and Nefilatek produce 3D filament from recycled plastic and failed prints to minimize plastic waste. The U.S. Army uses 3D printers to quickly print replacement parts in remote locations and is researching using plastic packaging materials like milk jugs, yogurt cups and water bottles as a feedstock for additive manufacturing.

Of course, 3D printing’s benefits reach far beyond its current application in PPE. Continue to visit America’s Plastic Makers: Making Sustainable ChangeSM to learn more about how America’s plastic makers use innovative technologies to respond to pressing needs and help end plastic waste.