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DOD Uses 3D Printers to Ease COVID-19 Ventilator Shortage

May 11, 2020 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Developers from the Army Research Laboratory are collaborating with civilian partners to manufacture low-cost, emergency ventilators using 3D printers.

The handheld gas ventilator, dubbed the Illinois RapidVent, is roughly the size of a water bottle. Due to its size and portability, the ventilator may also be ideal for soldiers in battle beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, said Tonghun Lee, a Champaign, Illinois-based ARL researcher.

Someone holds a small device.
Hand-Held Ventilator
The Illinois RapidVent, a gas-powered, hand-held ventilator, is roughly the size of a water bottle. It was produced by the Army Research Laboratory in Champaign, Ill. Due to its size and portability, the ventilator may also be ideal for soldiers in battle beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo By: James Bell, Army
VIRIN: 200423-O-ZZ999-001C

Also, airmen at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, are using a 3D printer to create N95 surgical masks.

The Defense Department has used 3D printing for a variety of projects for years, including:

  • Engineers at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, produced replacement parts for unmanned aerial and ground vehicles and weapons systems, such as components for a 40 mm grenade launcher, as early as 2014.
  • Army researchers at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, produced a turret for an M1A1 Abrams tank several years ago, a process normally requiring a giant lathe.
    A 3D printer produces  a computer-aided design.
    Surgical Mask
    A 3D printer creates an N95 surgical mask at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, March 31, 2020.
    Photo By: Air Force Airman 1st Class Robyn Hunsinger
    VIRIN: 200331-F-DN255-0079C
  • Technicians at the Rapid Prototype Lab at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia made mockups of parts for aircraft carriers, which would have taken more time and labor than using traditional materials of wood or metal.
  • The Navy's Fleet Readiness Center Southeast at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, developed an enhanced hydraulic intake manifold for the V-22 Osprey aircraft. It was 70 percent lighter, had improved fluid flow and fewer leak points than its traditionally-manufactured counterpart.
    A technician shows a 3D-printed part for a small aircraft.
    3D Printer
    Randy Meeker, a Fleet Readiness Center Southeast tooling designer on Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla., shows on a computer screen how a piece of environmental duct for a T-44 Pegasus aircraft was designed and created with a 3D printer in the facility's manufacturing department, Feb. 2, 2017.
    Photo By: Clifford Davis, Navy
    VIRIN: 170202-N-LQ867-001
  • Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, produces medical parts, including custom-made cranial plate implants, medical tooling and surgical guides.
  • Technicians at Travis Air Force Base, California, create nonstructural aircraft components.
  • Marines at Camp Pendleton, California, fabricated a concrete footbridge in December 2018.
    A service member crosses a footbridge over a small stream.
    3D Bridge
    A Marine with 1st Marine Logistics Group walks across a concrete footbridge created with a 3D printer at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Dec. 12, 2018. Working with Marine Corps Systems Command’s Advanced Manufacturing Operations Cell and the Army Corps of Engineers, the 1st MLG used the Automated Construction of Expeditionary Structures printer to do the 3D concrete printing of the bridge and evaluate emerging technology for future application in Marine Corps engineering operations.
    Photo By: Navy Ensign Elizabeth Flanary
    VIRIN: 181212-M-ZZ999-0433C

First, a computer-aided design — dubbed CAD — of the object to be fabricated is made using software and a computer. Then, the CAD software is connected to a 3D printer, and the part is printed layer by layer in a process called additive manufacturing. There are many types of 3D printers. Some can make plastic parts and others can make parts of various types of metals, rubber and many other materials.The concept of 3D printing started in the 1970s, but its development and deployment really took off during the next two decades. Prior to 3D printing, parts were cast, forged, milled, turned or stamped in a press. Many parts are still made that way.

A 3D printer manufactures a plastic part.
Plastic Prints
Marines from various units learn how to set up and print plastic parts using a 3D printer during a class at Camp Lejeune, N.C., June 2, 2020.
Photo By: Marine Corps Cpl. Justin T. Updegraff
VIRIN: 160602-M-TV331-020C

Two big advantages of 3D printing are that it is quicker than older methods of production that require time-consuming and costly retooling to turn out a modified part, and 3D printing also allows complex parts to be manufactured that might be difficult to produce using other methods.

Also, lightweight 3D printers can be located on or near the battlefield, alleviating costly delays in ordering parts shipped from thousands of miles away. For example, the Army's Rapid Equipping Force has been deploying 3D printers to Afghanistan since 2014 to assist soldiers with rapid solutions to part and equipment issues. The Navy even deploys 3D printers on ships.