Photo courtesy of HP Inc.
A series of photos shows the mask adjuster, made with 3-D printers at HP’s Rancho Bernardo lab.

Photo courtesy of HP Inc. A series of photos shows the mask adjuster, made with 3-D printers at HP’s Rancho Bernardo lab.

With traditional supply chains disrupted and materials scarce, health care leaders have sought out new ways to source personal protective equipment — the face shields, the respirators and the field ventilators that help medical professionals confront COVID-19.

HP Inc.’s contribution is 3-D printing.

The big tech company, which employs 1,200 people in Rancho Bernardo, is using additive manufacturing to make such items and more.

Rather than forming a part in a mold, the 3-D printing process builds up structures “layer upon layer upon layer,” explained Glen Hopkins, chief technology officer and global head of HP Labs.

The advantage of 3-D printing is that it can produce complex shapes that conventional manufacturing processes cannot. Sometimes its capabilities seem magic, said Hopkins, a resident of Poway.

‘A Mini Factory’

In normal times, people at the Rancho Bernardo lab invent what’s next in 3-D printing technology.

But now parts of the R&D lab, including 15 3-D printers, have turned into what Mariya Gelman called “a mini factory” of personal protective equipment. Gelman is R&D manager for 3-D printing.

HP’s top leadership is solidly behind the effort, she and Hopkins said in a recent interview.

By last week the Rancho Bernardo lab had turned out more than 10,000 items for hospitals in the greater San Diego region and across the United States. The products included 6,000 face shields. Some 2,000 went to New York City; others went to New Orleans and Detroit.

Also produced were 4,000 mask adjusters, devices that help medical professionals relieve the pressure of mask straps on their ears after long periods of wear.

1,800 Hours and Counting

Twenty-four volunteers have devoted 1,800 hours to the COVID-19 product effort since the middle of March. Gelman described workers setting up ad hoc assembly lines in lab spaces. Among other things, volunteers have had to cut and punch the clear polyester film in the face shields by hand.

Rancho Bernardo staff also helped to develop a nasopharyngeal test swab — again produced with the 3-D printing process — that has become a promising prototype. The designs were part of a clinical trial undertaken with Harvard University and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Massachusetts.

“I think we have an obligation to help if there is a critical need in our community for personal protective equipment,” Gelman said. As long as the firm has resources and materials, that effort must continue, she said.

Also contributing to the design and mass production of 3-D printed parts are other HP labs in Corvallis, Oregon; Vancouver, Washington; and Barcelona, Spain.

One development that has not been strictly medical is a hands-free door opener: an attachment to a bar-type door handle that lets a person open the door with a forearm, sparing a person the need to touch the handle with a hand.

HP posts design files on its website. The designs that are most in demand are the ones that increase splash protection, Gelman said.

New Materials, New Markets

Had the novel coronavirus not turned into a pandemic, and the need for personal protective equipment not become so pressing, Gelman would have spent April coming up with new materials for the 3-D printing process.

Raw material for 3-D printing comes in the form of a powder. HP is exploring new materials and new ways to produce parts for industries such as automotive and aerospace.

Notable recent applications have included the production of aligners for straightening teeth.

HP keeps details of its experiments close to the vest. There is a lot that goes on in the Rancho Bernardo plant that is not public information.

In addition to 3-D printing systems, the San Diego lab works on conventional printing technologies as well as personal computer systems. HP’s Rancho Bernardo facility operates in three shifts, around the clock.