From Head to Toe, Custom Foot and Mouth Gear Makers, Sidelined by COVID-19, Ramp up 3D Printers to Protect Health Care Workers

From head to toe, custom foot and mouth gear makers, sidelined by Covid-19, ramp up 3D printers to protect health care workers
Jun 11, 2020 5:35 PM ET
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The coronavirus hit Seattle hard and early, and by mid-March it was clear that hospitals were dangerously low on protective gear. One looming crisis was the disposable paper hoods used as part of a positive air pressure respiration (PAPR) system. The hoods receive filtered and pressured air through a hose, so doctors and nurses can breathe freely without inhaling germs from the outside. But hospitals were running low on stock.

“We got on our hands on some of the hoods and thought, why are these disposable?” says Eric Hayes, chief marketing officer of Superfeet in Ferndale, Washington. “We designed our own variant that be cleaned and reused instead of thrown away—and it could be manufactured locally.”

Meanwhile, across the country in Nashville, a team at SmileDirectClub was also pondering what they could do to help. “We figured traditional manufacturers would be able to quickly start making millions of disposable N-95 respirators,” recalls Dan Baker, the company’s head of global supply chain. “So we looked at more durable protective devices and settled on reusable, medical-grade plastic face shields.”

Disrupters that deliver

In both cases, companies that built their brands on innovation and market disruption pivoted within days to provide critical supplies to help fight the pandemic. Both have business models that rely on rapid, customizable 3D printing for their customers. And both companies partner with HP, which quickly came on board to offer assistance.

SmileDirectClub is an oral care company and creator of the first direct-to-consumer telehealth platform for custom teeth straightening. The publicly traded company has disrupted the $12 billion orthodontics industry and pioneered the use of teledentistry; it also works with dentists and orthodontists and operates its own brick-and-mortar locations, called SmileShops. “Our business has innovation in its DNA,” says Baker. “Every day we’re trying to find new ways stay at the forefront of teledentistry; you can’t rest on your laurels. We were ideally positioned to help amid this pandemic and continually find new ways to help health care workers and the dental community get back on its feet.”

SmileDirectClub’s chief executive officer David Katzman says, “We all have a responsibility to ‘help the helpers’ however possible.” With more than 60 HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printers in place, SmileDirectClub could help—a lot.

By mid-March the company had closed all of its 391+ SmileShops around the world outside of Hong Kong and donated any remaining medical supplies in the shops to assist essential workers. Thanks to teledentistry and the company’s flexible business model, SmileDirectClub was still open for business. In fact, they began making their digital platform more widely available to dentists whose practices were ordered shut. And after establishing a workplace safety plan in its Antioch, Tenn., facility, SmileDirectClub brought back 500 workers and began printing face shields, with materials provided by HP at cost. “We were having regular telephone conferences with HP, all the way up to the senior executives,” says Baker. “HP developed some really good designs to maximize the number of shields that could be made. It was 3D printing at its finest.” 

Baker points to a lucky bit of timing: Last summer, with sales booming and eyes on rapid international expansion, the company had invested heavily in more 3D printers and production lines. “So this year we were really primed for growth,” he says. When the pandemic hit, the capacity was there. Within a week, SmileDirectClub was making more than 7,000 shields a day—a number that soon grew to up to 10,000 a day.  

In Washington state, Superfeet couldn’t ignore reports about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for local hospitals. The 43-year-old company makes athletic insoles and shoes; its newest portion of the business—a partnership with HP—is crafting individualized insoles tuned to a person’s individual movement patterns, which are 3D printed after they visit a retail outlet for a Fitstation dynamic gait analysis. Superfeet is employee-owned and donates 1 percent of its revenue to non-profits, from local food kitchens to the Conservation Alliance. “At Superfeet we’ve built our business around putting people first,” says Hayes. “We’ve been in this community since 1977, and we’re very tied in. Our community is very important to us.” He says the company’s internal motto is “Be the Awesome,” a reminder of their commitment to be what they want to see in the world. “It’s not in our nature to hunker down and just take care of ourselves. Right away we asked what we could do to help.”

The Superfeet team reached out to their local hospital who identified a PAPR hood supply shortage. The product development team at Superfeet noticed a small plastic port on the back of the hospital PAPR hood, which connects to the air hose. They knew they could 3D print those ports. But who could make the fabric hood?

The answer was a nearby company called Pioneer AeroFab, which makes upholstery for airliners. “They stepped in and offered to sew the hood,” says Hayes. “The hoods come into our facility, where we print the ports. We do the final assembly and ship them off to hospitals.”

Superfeet and its sister company, Flowbuilt, which does the actual 3D printing, had three HP Multi Jet Fusion printers ready to go. After HP provided extra print beds, the companies were printing around the clock. They partnered with JawsTec and Jabil to produce additional 3D printed ports. By May, Superfeet delivered 42,000 hoods to hospitals as far east as Missoula, Mont., and south to San Diego. They now have capacity to print 30,000 more.

Back in Nashville, SmileDirectClub has now printed more than 66,000 face shields and actually has 15,000 in inventory, waiting for delivery. Besides supplying hospitals and manufacturers like St. Luke’s Health System in Idaho and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), it has also distributed shields to its own employees around the world. Rather than slow down, the company is now partnering with HP to try to print nasal test swabs.

Democracy of design

Hayes and Baker view the pandemic response as a defining moment for 3D printing. “The brilliance of 3D is it can pivot overnight,” says Baker. And he believes 3D can shine in collaboration with conventional manufacturing. “You could have injection-molded items that might be sitting there waiting for one part that’s in transit,” he says. “But with a 3D printer, you can get parts produced very quickly. These past weeks, we were willing to partner and experiment and figure it out together.” 

“Our mission is to empower people by providing new and innovative ways to deliver care,” adds Katzman. “We felt it was our duty to do all we could to help the medical community during this crisis, and we’ll continue to test and find new ways to produce materials.”

Similarly, Hayes says 3D printing has led to what he calls the democratization of both design and supply. “We cut out the middleman, basically. We can be the product designer and the manufacturer, and don’t have to open up tooling to mold a part then wait four to eight weeks, plus revisions.”

He adds it’s been gratifying to hear from doctors and nurses. “They take time away from their ridiculously busy schedules right now to send a note, a text, sometimes a phone call to say thanks. It really shows the caliber of people who are manning the front lines.”

Hayes also gets positive reinforcement on his daily runs. “I’m lucky enough to have a trail network right at the end of my street, so I’m able to get out on runs even now,” he says. “Last week I was up on the trail and a neighbor was coming down. We kept our distance but managed a quick conversation. ‘I saw what you guys are doing,’ she said, ‘and it didn’t surprise me at all.’”

Then, perhaps unknowingly referencing the company’s employee motto, she added, “You guys are awesome!”

VIDEO: Dan Baker discusses SmileDirectClub’s response to Covid-19

About HP

HP Inc. creates technology that makes life better for everyone, everywhere. Through our portfolio of personal systems, printers, and 3D printing solutions, we engineer experiences that amaze. More information about HP Inc. is available at www.hp.com/go/3DPrint.

Chad Mack
chad.mack@hp.com