DI Labs brings design and engineering strengths to its work in producing 3D printed face shields, masks, and components for ventilators.
By Mark Shortt
The first significant project that DI Labs took on as a young product development firm was the development of hardware technology for 3D printing. The Spicer, Minnesota company was founded in 2013 by Carl Douglass, a mechanical engineer who is currently the firm’s president, and his brother, Brian Douglass, who serves as chief operating officer.
“We developed a new commercial printhead for industrial and commercial printers that could 3D print parts two to five times faster than any other FDM style printer technology on the market,” said Carl Douglass in an interview with D2P. “We launched it, licensed it, and sold it to printer manufacturers.”
As a full product development firm, DI Labs can design electronic devices, enclosures, and complex systems, among other products. Today, its strong competencies in additive manufacturing, design for additive manufacturing (DfAM), and engineering services enable the company to do much more.
Ramping Up Capacity, Emphasizing Agility
In 2017, DI Labs invested in its first commercial printer. It then bought an HP machine to diversify its business and began offering additive manufacturing as a prototyping and production service for its customers and the market at large.
“Since then, we’ve continued to add to our capacity, doubling our capacity every year,” Douglass said. “We’ve got a small handful of HP Multi Jet Fusion machines, along with almost every other technology on the market, and we do some metal printing as well. We still do product development, but we do much less of it today than we did three to four years ago. That’s by design.”
With a company culture that encourages agility, the firm can shift capacity quickly to produce PPE and components for ventilators. During the COVID-19 pandemic, DI Labs has fielded numerous requests for PPE and is currently producing face masks, face shields, and ear protectors. Demand is coming from all across the country, mainly from essential workers who need protection even if they’re not treating COVID-19 patients on the front lines of health care, Douglass told D2P.
“As the mass produced PPE has been distributed to front line workers, it’s left a void for essential workers who still need to have protection, whether they’re in retail or other ends of the healthcare spectrum,” Douglass said in a phone interview. “Dentists are in dire need of such support, and [so are] manufacturing workers, whether they’re in the food packaging industry or other critical manufacturing sectors. That’s where we’re seeing the need because all of the supplies have been sent to the front line workers.”
Sterilizable Mask Seals Against the Face
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, DI Labs developed a 3D printed face mask that address key safety issues for healthcare professionals. Unlike masks with rough, somewhat porous surfaces, it has a smooth, moisture-resistant surface that can be properly washed and sanitized. The masks are manufactured using HP Multi Jet Fusion technology and nylon PA 12 material, Douglass said.
One of the limits of 3D printing face masks is that the plastic materials typically used make it difficult to seal the mask against the wearer’s face. To overcome this risk to the wearer’s safety, DI Labs puts the printed masks through a chemical processing system to smooth the surface of the plastic and create a pliable flange.
“We’ve developed a plastic flange that seals against the face, which is pretty important,” Douglass said. “The plastic starts rigid, and then we modify it after it’s been printed to make it soft and pliable.”
DI Labs uses VaporFuse Surfacing (VFS), a finishing technique for 3D printed parts that achieves smooth, sealed, water-repellent surfaces similar to those produced by injection molding. The post-processing system provides washable, scratch resistant parts that are suitable for food-contact applications, DI Labs said on its website.
— DI Labs President Carl Douglass
“We are able to provide fully functional, sealed, sterilizable parts, in volume, in as little as 12 hours from design submission,” Douglass added.
DI Labs is also developing its own ventilator distribution system that enables independent monitoring of multiple patients on a single ventilator.
“One ventilator goes to four patients, and our distribution system allows for independent control of each patient,” Douglass told D2P. “It’s meant to be a simple-to-produce, yet effective solution that does not require complicated electronics. It’s a manual switching system that allows the doctor, nurse, or healthcare professional to manually select the patients, and then just set the dial and the settings.”
Although the ventilator distribution system has reached what could be called the beta prototype stage, Douglass said the firm is tapping the brakes on the product’s development in response to changing market dynamics.
“We’re seeing a lot of pull from the marketplace on different types of needs, and that shifts,” he said. “We’re sort of throttling the development activities on that as the need increases or decreases.”
COVID-19 Brings Greater Awareness of Benefits of Additive Manufacturing
Douglass said he believes the COVID-19 pandemic has brought greater awareness of additive manufacturing and the ability to be “extraordinarily responsive—designed today, produced tomorrow.” Even better, all of this can be accomplished with mass customization and the ability to adapt designs on the fly. “I’m seeing a greater awareness of the ability to leverage additive to produce products extraordinarily fast for final applications, and have them be customized,” he said.
“As we’re working with some of our customers and providing them with PPE, we’re starting to customize the PPE for their particular applications and their particular needs,” he said. “If a customer comes to us today and asks us for 3,000 face shields, we can redesign those and start production tomorrow. And then, after that, we could do 3,000 of a completely different design in the very next run, or even all together.
“So, that’s where I think the ideas are going. It’s maybe not so much about new products as much as it’s about how to leverage this technology to accelerate innovation of new products that are unique going forward.”
As a company that deploys HP 3D printing machines, DI Labs is part of a broader HP network of operators in the U.S. and abroad. Douglass said that as HP has brought its network operators together, it’s been remarkable to see and experience the possibilities of distributed supply chain production.
“HP can connect with all of us,” he said. “They can get us one file, and we can come together with hundreds of printers and be able to produce parts on a very mass scale. You could never do that with traditional manufacturing. You could never bring a network of manufacturers together and have them spool up tomorrow because they all have to have special tooling. This is another situation where, to be extraordinarily responsive on a global scale, additive allows us to do things that we could never do otherwise.”