Feature   Defense News

Marines Put 3D Printing to Use in COVID-19 Fight

April 8, 2020 | BY Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Gerardo Cano

For Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Michael P. Burnham and Marine Corps Sgt. Blaine E. Garcia, a trailer-sized workspace filled with sweltering heat and the constant whine of more than a dozen machines running at full speed is simply the setting for just another day.

This day, however, involves bringing 3D printing to the fight for the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, as they use their manufacturing skills against COVID-19.

A Marine Corps staff sergeant briefs a Marine Corps major on a 3D printer’s operation.
3D Printing
Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Michael P. Burnham, a machinist with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 36, briefs Marine Corps Maj. Matthew M. Mulherin, an electronics maintenance officer with Marine Air Support Squadron 2, on the process of 3D printing at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Japan, April 6, 2020. The Marines of MALS 36 are producing mask frames and face shields for use in the fight against COVID-19.
Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Ethan M. LeBlanc
VIRIN: 200406-M-XJ088-1001

For Burnham, who originally served as a machinist working with ground ordnance, and Garcia, who started his career working on jet engines, the process of 3D printing has become less of an unexpected turn in their service and more of a passion. Garcia has several 3D printers of his own, once used for hobbies and now put into the effort by the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force to print the frames for thousands of masks and face shields.

Posters that surround the machines as they churn away highlight a success story for 3D printing in the 1st MAW and serve as an example of the sort of additive manufacturing that Burnham and Garcia have spent years perfecting.

Today, they have put their experience into the fight against the COVID-19 coronavirus. In their workspace on Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the Japanese island of Okinawa, the two have turned their workspace, ordinarily used for 3D printing parts for aviation maintenance, into a personal protection equipment factory.

The goal, Burnham explained, is to reduce the need for medical-grade masks and respirators by providing an alternative supply of frames for masks and face shields for Marines and sailors assigned to the 3rd MEF and its supporting units, particularly those directly engaged in first-line medical care and screening.

A 3D printer produces face mask frames.
Printer Frames
A Marine Air Logistics Squadron 36 3D printer prints the frame for a face shield at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Japan, April 7, 2020. The squadron’s Marines are producing mask frames and face shields for use in the fight against COVID-19.
Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Ethan M. LeBlanc
VIRIN: 200407-M-XJ088-1002

The plastic frames being printed, Burnham said, started as 3D models on a computer, designed with input from medical professionals and incorporating open-source ideas from others in the 3D printing community. Once the design is settled, a program "slices" the model into a series of programs for the 3D printer, which can then assemble a complete object from up to thousands of layers of two-dimensional patterns formed by cooling jets of molten plastic.

The mask frames can be created in different plastic materials, and they'll be combined with elastic bands, cords or other fasteners, along with easily washable and readily available cloth covers, to make complete masks. The plastic frame creates a seal around the wearer's mouth and nose.

The face shields are a more complicated product, also developed in concert with the U.S. Naval Hospital on Okinawa. Garcia designed the face shield frames, with hospital public health officials providing quality assurance.

"We start with a number of different prototypes," he explained, demonstrating a number of designs for which public health experts had directed alterations. "We look at all the ideas, and each prototype goes through the [quality assurance] process."

Close-up of excess plastic being trimmed from a 3D-printed face mask frame.
Handy Work
A U.S. Marine with Marine Air Logistics Squadron 36 cuts the excess plastic from a face mask after printing on MCAS Futenma, Okinawa, Japan, April 7, 2020. The Marines of MALS-36 are working to produce mask frames and face shields for use in the fight against COVID-19.
Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Ethan M. LeBlanc
VIRIN: 200407-M-XJ088-1007

The final design, he said, is deliberately simple, but effective: an arc-shaped piece of plastic with a series of pegs and hooks along the outside edge.

"We send the frames to the hospital," Garcia said, demonstrating the process of making a face shield with the frames using a plastic sheet protector. "They'll clean them and use a plastic similar to the overhead transparencies they use in schools, with holes punched in them to fit over the knobs on the front."

MALS 36 will be producing the face shield frames going forward, as part of the 3rd MEF's overall effort, with other elements producing mask frames at a similar rate beyond the 1,000 already produced.

Any part these Marines print for an aircraft goes through reviews by engineers and experts, Garcia said, ensuring that they fit the tolerances needed and can stand up to the conditions. "Once that's done, it's available to every Marine and sailor who can print," he added, allowing the services to rapidly disseminate the designs that make the cut.

A 3D printer produces face mask frames.
Mask Frames
A Marine Air Logistics Squadron 36 3D printer prints the frame for a face shield at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Japan, April 7, 2020. The squadron’s Marines are producing mask frames and face shields for use in the fight against COVID-19.
Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Ethan M. LeBlanc
VIRIN: 200406-M-XJ088-1002

This division of labor, with different units producing parts and medical personnel taking the mass-produced frames for masks and face shields and overseeing the distribution, allows the MALS 36 team to focus on rapid and sustained production, Garcia said, noting that 3D printing has a longer lead time initially than simply ordering parts that are in-stock. But once the initial design is finished, he said, it allows for faster, cheaper, and more responsive delivery of parts. It also allows entirely new items to be created from scratch in remote conditions.

Around the clock, Burnham and Garcia oversee the process of production. Maintaining their distance from each other in both time and space, the two Marines work in shifts, with Garcia laboring to keep the morning's mask and face shield production going and Burnham arriving after Garcia has departed to remove the finished products from their print beds and begin the process yet again.

Despite the long hours, Burnham emphasized that 3D printing is not necessarily labor-intensive once production has begun. "We print them in stacks," he said against the backdrop of another set of mask frames being printed. "Most of the time, if there's a mistake, it's in the first layer, so we can tell right away if we need to stop the machine and reposition."

A Marine wearing a facemask performs maintenance on a 3D printer.
3D Printer
Marine Corps Sgt. Blaine Garcia, a helicopter power plants mechanic with Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 36, conducts maintenance on a 3D printer at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Japan, April 7, 2020. The squadron’s Marines are producing mask frames and face shields for use in the fight against COVID-19.
Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Ethan M. LeBlanc
VIRIN: 200407-M-XJ088-1001

From there, the frames can be left alone, the workspace growing noticeably hot as a dozen nozzles spread heated plastic out in an exacting pattern. After 11 hours, the frames are ready to remove from the printer and separate into individual items — and at two to four stacks of 10 mask frames each per machine, this adds up quickly, allowing any similarly appointed workspace to create more than 800 mask frames per day.

This output can be kept up 24/7, Burnham said. The machine's print head moves from side to side, while the print bed itself, the large plate upon which the object is printed, moves forward and back. Each layer of the object is painstakingly assembled by the minute, programmed motions of the print head, feeding a heated stream of molten plastic precisely into place. The smaller machines print more slowly, but use a smaller filament, allowing for finer detail to be captured.

Red and white face mask frames are stacked on a workbench.
Mask Production
Finished mask frames sit on the production desk of Marine Air Logistics Squadron 36 at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Japan, April 7, 2020. The squadron’s Marines are producing mask frames and face shields for use in the fight against COVID-19.
Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Ethan M. LeBlanc
VIRIN: 200407-M-XJ088-1006

The entryway to the workspace Garcia and Burnham use is decorated by evidence of this fine detail, with everything from rocket parts and ornate, twisting test pieces to minutely detailed decorations arrayed on tables in 3D printed wood, metal, and plastic. Even the fixtures within the workspace are 3D printed, with the handles suspending first aid kits and most plastic parts of the 3D printers themselves bearing the fine striations that mark a 3D-printed product.

"With 3D printing," Garcia said, "you're really limited only by your imagination."

(Marine Corps Lance Cpls. Gerardo Cano, Madeline Jones and Ethan LeBlanc and Marine Corps 1st Lt. Nicholas Royer all contributed to this story. They are assigned to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa, Japan.)