Homemade Protection

Tackling PPE shortages to safeguard health service workers

One of the most highlighted challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the increased supply of vital Personal Protection Equipment required by health service workers. But where there is scarcity, there is enterprise and, often, innovation.

This is true in the U.K. where voluntary PPE cottage industries are emerging at speed. Run by ordinary people, these extraordinary acts of human kindness are meeting an urgent need.

Raytheon UK employee Ady Walker is one example. He has been manufacturing PPE at home on a company-owned 3D printer, producing face shield headbands for the National Health Service.

“I’m producing around 120 face visor headbands per week for the NHS, and I’m also supplying ear protectors to the Raytheon UK maintenance organisation,” said Walker, a Raytheon UK aircraft design engineer. “Although I’m physically operating the printer, it really has been a team effort, and I remotely liaise with my colleagues, daily, to optimise the design and our productivity.”

Walker, a former Royal Air Force mechanical aircraft engineer of 28 years, is part of Raytheon UK’s Design and Technical Engineering Support team based at RAF Waddington, providing technical support and design solutions for Raytheon UK’s Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance business, which includes supporting the RAF’s Sentinel and Shadow aircraft.

He and his colleagues are distributing PPE products through a 3D printing PPE group scheme started by Lincoln University.

Having first heard of the scheme in the local paper, they immediately got in touch to help.

“We operate a 3D printer in our department but, since lockdown, we’ve all been working at home and the printer was just sitting in the office,” Walker said. “We asked the leadership team for permission to take it home to produce PPE, and they were very supportive, also providing materials. Raytheon UK already had links with the university through our STEM and graduate programmes.”

To date, the scheme has provided more than 6,000 headbands and visors to three hospitals in Lincolnshire and more than 35 general practitioner surgeries and care homes.

Walker, who is working his full-time role alongside this voluntary activity, knew he needed to maximise output and so optimising the printer’s productivity time was essential:

“The printer melts a plastic filament and then lays it down in a fine thread of 0.4mm diameter and 0.3mm height. The printer then builds the layers to produce the final item,” he said. “My colleagues and I worked out that if I printed one at a time I would spend 20 mins of my time for every 35 minutes of print time. But we’ve optimised the design and printer settings so I can now print 30 at a time, spending only 30 minutes of my time for every 23 hours of print time. This has improved output massively.

“Lincoln University is operating nine 3D printers around-the-clock and also tweaked the open source 3D CAD design to better fit the visors,” Walker said.

The university attaches Walker’s headbands to visors and delivers the finished product to Lincoln Hospital and other NHS and care workers throughout the county. The first 500 collectively produced each week are prioritised for the hospital.

If one of the headbands is corrupted during printing then the entire production process needs to be restarted from the beginning, but up to now Walker has only experienced that once.

“It happened about halfway up a stack of 30, but I was lucky as everything below it was fine, but the rest turned out like spaghetti,” he said. “Fifteen is not a big number, but it means I lost half a day’s product when time is critical. I’ve committed to produce 120 per week, which is why I’ve left capacity to be able to catch up if there is an error.

“When you see the figures of the lives lost, it makes it very real that every single item that we produce is making a difference to our end users and potentially saving many lives,” Walker said.