Via Deutsche Welle

Dirk Thelen is a 3D printing enthusiast who has five of the devices in his home, most of them usually employed creating busts of his favorite characters, like Batman. But now the machines are on 24 hours a day, churning out something that is desperately needed: protective face shields.

Each printer is capable of producing 100 of these plastic visors a day. What was a “somewhat decadent” hobby before the onset of a global pandemic, Thelen says, is now being used to provide workers in elderly care facilities with urgently needed materials.

In his normal life, the 35-year-old is a bus dispatcher for a company that mostly organizes transport for schoolchildren. But with schools closed, buses are just sitting in the parking lot and Thelen’s hours have been cut. He lives on the outskirts of Heinsberg, in western Germany, a town that was an initial epicenter for the spread of the novel coronavirus and its resulting disease, COVID-19.

3D printing enthusiast Dirk Thelen (photo provided by Dirk Thelen)

35-year-old Dirk Thelen lives in an area of Germany that was hit early and hard by the pandemic

It was his wife, Barbara, who gave him the idea to put the printers in his study to use towards the public good. She works in a nursing home, and when the crisis began, they lacked the type of protective gear that used to mostly be seen in high-risk wards of hospitals. After the onset of the pandemic, the prices for such products became “extortionate,” Thelen says. So he fired up the printers.

His wife and her colleagues were grateful for the help. There was also positive feedback from the residents of the care home. “Above all the dementia patients — who need to see the caregivers’ faces — were happy that they were not covered by fabric,” he adds.

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Huge demand for face shields

That was four weeks ago. In the meantime, by early this week he had already produced 700 face shields in his study. The machines heat the material up to 220 degrees Celsius (428 degrees Fahrenheit) and form it into a mask. On average, it takes around an hour and 40 minutes for a mask to be finished.

Before his face shields were sent to his wife’s workplace, Dirk and Barbara Thelen conducted a test. “My wife put a mask on and I sprayed it with a spray cleaner. Everything was tight, nothing came through the protective visor,” says Thelen.

Dirk Thelen's 3D printers (photo provided by Dirk Thelen)

Thelen’s 3D printers are able to produce several masks simultaneously and are now running 24 hours a day

Nevertheless, the masks are of course not comparable to face shields that are used in operating rooms in hospitals, and his face shields aren’t meant for that purpose. Nevertheless, Thelen tries to keep the production as completely sterile as possible and wears gloves and a face mask when he operates the printer.

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Interest from other businesses

After Thelen had taken care of the needs at the nursing home where his wife works, he wrote a Facebook post about his face shields. It unexpectedly went viral, says Thelen. He then registered himself on a website that combines offers of help from people with 3D printers. “The 3D printing community is well connected,” says Thelen. A company in the automotive industry then contacted Thelen and ordered masks to protect its employees.

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Another nursing home has also requested Thelen fulfill its requirements, and he recently received a private request from Berlin. “A woman who does not belong to a risk group, but has to regularly go to the doctor wanted to have a mask to protect herself,” he says

Stacks of 3D printed masks made by Thelen (proto provided by Dirk Thelen)

Thelen can print some 100 masks daily on the machines in his home


Thelen doesn’t earn anything from his face shields, he just raises the few euros he needs to buy more material. His only concern is his next electric bill. “Five 3D printers really use a lot of electricity,” says Thelen. He’s written a letter to his electricity provider, hoping he can receive a subsidy or come to a special arrangement as he is performing a public service.

In the coming weeks, Thelen will be able to produce even more face shields. A local driving school has provided the 35-year-old with yet another 3D printer he can use to keep production going 24 hours a day.

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