USC community uses 3D printing to combat medical equipment shortage during COVID-19 pandemic

Students, faculty, alumni and professionals are joining the effort to print masks for Keck Medicine of USC.

As healthcare workers across the nation face a shortage of personal protective equipment, the USC community has started a grassroots movement to use 3D printing to provide USC Keck Medicine workers with the necessary gear.

Darryl Hwang, assistant professor of research radiology at Keck School of Medicine of USC, has been working to produce 3D-printed masks to fill the shortage of personal protective equipment at Keck Medicine of USC.

Hwang told Annenberg Media in a phone interview that Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston asked its local makers to make 3D-printed masks, and he found the model that the hospital used.

“I took that model and I printed out a copy of it and tested it out at the hospital [to] see if it would work. And it passed one of our N95 tests,” Hwang said.

Although these 3D-printed masks are not officially certified, Hwang started to produce and store them as a backup plan for Keck “in case we run out of the approved N95 certified masks,” he said. “The trend is across the country that people are running short on PPE. In general, we want to be ahead of the curve.”

During a press briefing via Zoom on March 20, USC Chief Health Officer Sarah Van Orman said USC’s healthcare system has a huge shortage of personal protective equipment.

“It’s actually at a crisis level within our healthcare facilities,” she added.

Hwang said the infection prevention team at Keck has determined that “if we don't have any N95 masks, this [3D-printed mask] is better than wearing just a surgical mask or wearing a bandana or handkerchief.” Right now, he said, it takes five hours to print out a mask.

With the strong network between Keck and USC campuses, Hwang quickly expanded this initiative to the entire university, receiving help from faculty, students, alumni at the Schools of Engineering, Architecture and Iovine and Young Academy.

“It's an entire university-wide initiative right now. We're trying to work as fast as we can to make sure that if we come to a shortage of supplies, we have backups of things that could work,” Hwang said.

Alvin Huang, the director of graduate and post-professional architecture at USC School of Architecture, tried to help by using the 3D printers on campus.

“Unfortunately, as we all know, the campus is on lockdown and we have difficulty accessing those machines,” Huang told Annenberg Media via a Zoom call.

He sent out an email Monday to USC School of Architecture members seeking help from individuals equipped with 3D printers.

“I am trying to organize USC Architecture faculty, students and alumni who have 3D printers and are willing and able to help print, manufacture, and donate PPE to USC Keck Medical Center,” Huang stated in an email.

The initiative started as a “grassroots, ground-up call for arms” and expanded to alumni, friends, family and local professionals, according to Huang.

“It is something that has snowballed since we first started this,” Huang said. He said that since Sunday, the initiative has grown up to “68 people participating in 68 different locations in Southern California with, collectively, 84 3D printers.”

“We are essentially the muscle right now,” Huang said.

Yifan Zhang, a recent graduate from USC architecture school, responded to Huang’s call and started to print masks at home.

“From my personal view, 3D-printing PPE is an innovative way to deal with the shortage of medical supply due to [the] COVID-19 crisis,” Zhang told Annenberg Media via email. “And I believe 3D printing will lead to a revolutionary change to manufacturing and producing in the future since it can make everyone become a producer.”

A time-lapse showing the process of 3D printing a mask. (Courtsey of Yifan Zhang)

Eve Li, who is in her third year studying for a master’s degree in architecture, started printing her first mask after receiving the model file from Huang.

“Although architecture students cannot help as much as healthcare workers, most of us have 3D printers. I feel that I could do my part to help combat the outbreak and help healthcare workers alleviate the pressure,” Li told Annenberg Media via WeChat.

“I started printing the mask on Tuesday night,” she said. “Now the 3D-printed N95 mask and face shield are both approved by Keck, so we are working on printing both of them.”

Andrew Hulin is an Iovine and Young Academy junior who has worked with 3D printers for six years. He is not currently involved in printing masks but suggested that 3D printers can produce antimicrobial masks, which can be fully sanitized and reused.

The New York-based hospital has started to make its own nasal swabs using 3D printing, enabling it to produce thousands of swabs a day that can be used in testing for the coronavirus, according to New York Times.

“As Keck put it, we are preparing for wartime medicine,” Huang said. “So they want all hands on deck and we’re mobilizing trying to get the backup to the backup, but hopefully we will never have to reach the backup to the backup.”

He mentioned that students from Cal Poly’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design are also joining their efforts.

“I think another goal would be that this thing [3D printing] continues to go viral, and it’s not just us doing it for these four hospitals, but it’s actually the rest of the country and rest of the world that has 3D printers that are able to do it for their local hospitals,” Huang said.

In an effort to encourage donations of much-needed equipment for health care workers, USC has created a drive for equipment donations, and Student Health’s Engemann location will serve as a donation point for any personal protective equipment (PPEs, including N95 masks) that can be sent to the Health Sciences Campus. People who want to donate N95 masks to Keck Medicine of USC can email

People who want to participate in 3D printing personal protective equipment for Keck Medicine can refer to this document provided by Keck Medicine of USC.