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Creating PPE using 3D printers - Dr Sam Canning

Creating PPE using 3D printers - Dr Sam Canning

Good design, believes Dr Sam Canning, is about helping people. “It’s about transforming and improving people’s lives,” he says.

Sam lectures in industrial and product design at the Gold Coast campus of the Queensland College of Art, which is part of Griffith University. Driven by a personal passion to help those in need, Sam instigated a design project that may have far-reaching consequences for community health across the world – particularly in places where access to personal protective gear (PPE) and medical gear is in short supply. 

With the help of state-of-the-art machines, including 3D printers, he wants to put professionally designed life-saving equipment in the hands of those who need it most. 

The project began after an honours student put Sam in contact with anaesthetist Dr Tom Solano, who’s based at a hospital in rural Victoria. Tom’s hospital was having trouble getting hold of PPE and other medical equipment – especially masks, gowns, balaclavas, face shields, ventilators and intubators.

Sam realised he could play a role in helping create medical equipment that’s in demand – especially during a crisis such as a global pandemic – and started collecting resources for a quick-fire, four-week university project. Soon, 50 industrial and product design students volunteered to help, as did seven professionals with more than 200 years of industry experience.

The goal of this high-pressure project was to create a range of medical equipment, especially PPE, that is professionally designed, adaptable, cost effective and ready for use in emergency situations. 

“As designers, there isn’t anything more important that we should be doing than this right now,” says Sam. “I realised at the outset of this project that design has a key role to play. Our objective is to create products that we can produce quickly and locally. The user also has to trust these products that we make.”

Why we need to take responsibility

A major focus of the project was designing PPE using 3D printers. “The technology allows you to make something that is impossible to create in any other way,” says Sam. “It’s revolutionary in that regard.”

He says 3D printers are ideal for rendering items such as PPE because they can create products that accurately conform to human body shapes. “Our students can scan feet, arms or faces and model that directly onto the geometry. It’s really good for that kind of thing.

“3D printing is slow, but if you can fit 300 masks into a build that takes three hours it’s not too bad.”

Sam says Griffith University has built a world-class reputation for excellence in 3D printing technology. Two years ago, the university opened the Advanced Design Prototyping Technologies Institute – a multimillion-dollar facility that houses state-of-the-art industrial machines that print in metal and plastic. 

“We also take our social and ethical responsibility very seriously here,” says Sam. “I think it’s important to help other people. Somebody once said, ‘The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members’… that’s really important.”

Help where it’s needed

Although the aim of the Griffith University project was to help Australians in emergency situations, Sam has also become concerned about COVID-19’s impact in the developing world. That’s why he has designed a low-tech ventilator using everyday items, such as bicycle wheels and plastic tubing.

“I heard that South Sudan, a country of about 12 million people, had access to two ventilators,” he says. “The Central African Republic, which I think has about five million people, had about five. There were 10 African countries that had access to none at all. “I thought, ‘how could we possibly help these people?’ 

“I thought we could make a ventilator that would provide the bare minimum … and they could actually make it themselves. We could empower these people to do something to help themselves.”

The success of the 3D printed PPE project can’t just be gauged by how many medical workers use the students’ designs, he says. “It runs more deeply than that. It’s been an absolutely resounding success in terms of the students’ experiences and feeling of empowerment, especially during this crisis. Everybody involved, without exception, has done their best.”

Sam says the ultimate aim is to design PPE that can be produced here or in places where materials might be harder to source. The designs would need to be flexible, so they can be produced at scale or replicated using other technologies overseas.

“The ultimate goal is to help,” he says. “We especially want to help people who are less fortunate than we are. All we really hope is that this is going to help somebody.”

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