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How One Manufacturer Is Helping School Labs 3-D Print Protective Gear

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As manufacturers address COVID-19, they’re not only producing critical equipment and everyday necessities. They’re also helping their communities lend a hand. Behlen Mfg. Co., a global leader in steel fabrication based in Columbus, Nebraska, organized local labs with 3D printers to develop printable protective gear for health care workers.

Working alongside the labs at the local middle schools, high schools and college, Behlen is producing protective National Institutes of Health–approved face shields developed by Design That Matters around the clock. With schools closed, principals and staff are coming in during the day and on the weekends to gather completed equipment and reload the machines. Two weeks after they first began discussing the program, the company had already helped to provide 255 shields to local hospitals, another 25 to local dentists and 15 to a local nursing home—with many more on the way.

Behlen also expects to ramp up production. A former employee who is now the director of the plastic injection molding lab at a local college has been working on a more sophisticated mold for the mask’s framework. Once that work is complete, they believe they could cut production time from 2.5 hours per mask to just 20 seconds.

“We need to be leaders out there and think outside the box,” said Behlen Mfg. Co. General Manager for Customer Fabrication Heather Macholan. “All of us in manufacturing have untapped skills—and right now, we need to be innovators even more so than we already are.”

Macholan also spoke from a personal perspective about the work Behlen is doing. As a 2013 honoree of The Manufacturing Institute’s STEP Ahead Awards, which celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and production careers who exemplify leadership within their companies, Macholan is proud to help her company serve as a model for young people who might be interested in working in the manufacturing industry one day.

“It’s a way for me to close the loop,” said Macholan. “Kids who are involved in science, technology, engineering and math programs are seeing from our work that manufacturing can make a difference—even in a pandemic. Maybe it’ll spark some innovation, and maybe it’ll encourage somebody who hadn’t thought about it before to go into those types of fields. To me, that’s what’s most gratifying.”

Macholan encouraged other businesses to use untapped skills and resources to support the effort, whether by rethinking existing processes or coming up with new projects to deliver essential needs.

“Manufacturers are masters of dealing with chaos,” said Macholan. “We know how to think on our feet. We know how to change things to meet the needs of the customers. That’s what we provide—and that’s how we will weather this storm.”

“Innovation is at the heart of what manufacturers do every day,” said National Association of Manufacturers President and CEO Jay Timmons. “As we confront this serious challenge, the dedicated efforts of manufacturers across the country are making progress possible.”

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