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Humans of Manufacturing: Heroes

Essentium’s 3D Printing Helps Texas With Curbing COVID-19

In times of need, manufacturing is driven by a philosophy John Lennon said best, “There are no problems, only solutions.” Today, manufacturers have pivoted to produce the critical supplies and equipment necessary to battle COVID-19 at a rate never seen before. SME’s Humans of Manufacturing Heroes Edition tells the stories of the teams, companies and partnerships adapting to produce the tools needed to fight this global pandemic. Going behind the scenes to share how these once-in-a-lifetime transformations are happening and the people making it all possible.

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Blake Teipel, Ph.D., CEO and Co-founder, Essentium. (Provided by Essentium Inc.)

Like many manufacturers, Essentium Inc. looked at ways it could respond to COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus.

“The pandemic was starting to hit,” said Blake Teipel, Essentium’s CEO and co-founder. “It was starting to ramp up. We were looking at postings online. There were various entities trying to print face masks and parts for ventilators.”

From Essentium’s standpoint, the question was, “What can we do for manufacturing to really make a difference?”

Teipel was at home in March when he received a call from the Texas National Guard seeking assistance. The guard had been activated by Gov. Greg Abbott to assist with the pandemic.

Essentium, based in Pfugerville, Texas, manufactures and delivers 3D printers and engineering-grade material. “Essentium had a pre-existing relationship with the guard,” Teipel said. “They had purchased one of our printers.”

“I took that call pretty serious,” he added. “I called my lead designer who had a medical device background. He and I looked at masks. We looked at something to do in the face mask space. We felt there was a shortfall in masks.”

That same evening, “We convened,” Teipel said of himself and his staff. He conferred with the company’s engineering department, supply chain and commercial team—who are used to designing and building 3D printers and related material, not medical equipment itself.

The company designed face masks it could manufacture with 3D printing and held discussions with organizations to validate the designs. It constructed a cleanroom facility environment for manufacturing.

The company did more than 40 cycles of mask designs, working with the University of Texas and other groups. Essentium received approval from the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to proceed.

The company sold 10 High Speed Extrusion (HSE) Printing Platforms to the state of Texas and operated the printers for 90 days, making face masks. Production was underway by April 1, less than a month after Teipel first received the call for assistance.

“It was us,” Teipel said. “It was our manufacturing engineers. It was our materials engineers. Our team was all in this fight. The morale was high. It was awesome to flex those muscles.

“We actually completed the project ahead of schedule,” he added. “We were able to keep our team safe from COVID-19.”

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Designing the masks involved collaboration with Health Science Center and Texas Medical Center. (Provided by Essentium Inc.)

Essentium sold about 70,000 mask kits. It also trained others to take over operations of the HSE 3D printers, which are housed at Texas A&M.

“This may be one of the largest industrial printer fleets operated by a state,” Teipel said.

Essentium also explored injection molding as an alternative method of making mask frames. In the end, additive manufacturing proved a quicker way to go. “We had a delivery schedule we had to meet,” Teipel said. An injection molding company “couldn’t get a mold ready in time. They were on top of their game. They’re as good as it gets. It still took six weeks to get a mold ready in time.”

Looking ahead, the CEO said the mask kit project has helped Essentium’s core business.

“We saw the validation of the readiness of additive manufacturing,” he said. “I know that it’s important to us.”

“The biggest thing I think we learned as a company is that the time is now,” the CEO said of 3D printing. “Additive is ready for prime time. Additive manufacturing is at an inflection point relative to traditional manufacturing. The industry is at a point where we’re ready to go into actual manufacturing.”

“The printers are up to the task. The variety of materials are up to the task.”

Teipel said Essentium is ready to respond to COVID-19 as the pandemic unfolds. Around the world, additive manufacturing has proven to be an indispensable tool in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We can play a supporting role,” he said. “We can help and aid anything they need for whatever they need to use going forward. We can support people who are able to fill whatever need there is.”

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