GE Renewable Energy is retooling assembly lines in several of its factories US to start manufacturing 3D-printed shields designed in-house to extend the life of the N95 masks being worn by front-line healthcare workers in the battle against coronavirus.

The industrial giant told Recharge its Pensacola, Florida and Greenville, South Carolina facilities would be producing the shields – devised by one its sourcing managers, Caroline Shaw.

Shaw hit upon the idea of 3D-printing the shields after becoming concerned assigning N95s to a team of coworkers – who were carrying out health screening of employees at GE’s Pensacola wind turbine plant – would mean diverting masks from doctors and nurses in the state.

“There’s a supply out there for the medical community,” she said, “but we didn’t want to tap into that.”

The 3D-printed shields extend the life of the N95s helps to limit exposure of the masks to contaminants, which can extend use by beyond typical one-time disposal.

“These masks are intended to be disposable, but the CDC [the US Center for Disease Control] has guidelines on what to do in crisis situations,” said Shaw, who is well-versed in additive manufacturing as the Penscacola factory uses an industrial-grade 3D printer to make tooling and custom-made gauges and prototype wind turbine components.

Shaw moved the idea form spark of concept to prototype in a day, and had it into field-tests t a local hospital by yesterday (1 April). A GE colleague, Tiffany Craft, a senior repair engineer, has begun trials using different materials and is prototyping full mask designs, while building a design library that is being accessed by US- and Hungary-based team from GE Aviation, GE Research and GE Power.

Current per-shield manufacturing time is around 40 minutes but GE is working on a faster iteration of the process using laser-cutting to get down to five minutes apiece.