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HEALTH

German techies turn to 3D printers to produce coronavirus protective gear

The high-ceilinged workshop in Darmstadt is usually open to anyone -- from hobbyists trying new machinery or techniques to high-tech startup workers tinkering with prototypes.

German techies turn to 3D printers to produce coronavirus protective gear
A sign reading 'please only enter the store with mouth protection' at a shop in Hamm, western Germany. Photo: INA FASSBENDER / AFP

During the coronavirus pandemic, it has been turned into a hub for dropping off plastic parts made at home by volunteers and used to assemble face shields they are sending to health workers across Germany and even as far off as a refugee camp in Greece.

The so-called German MakerVsVirus network — extending into Austria and Switzerland thanks to the shared language — gathers about 7,000 enthusiasts who are using their own 3D printers or other gadgets to produce much-coveted medical gear.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about Germany's new coronavirus ‘pandemic law'

With medical workers worldwide scrambling for protective shields, masks or gowns amid a huge shortage because of the coronavirus, the tech geeks have stepped in to help fill the gap.

Physicist Nico Neumann, who has converted the drop-in workshop into the MakerVsVirus hub, said: “For me, it started with five face shields for my uncle's medical practice.

“Then my grandfather's care service wanted some, and then we noticed that there was this network in Germany” which was ready to be mobilised.”

“We started out as a lot of private individuals and lone wolves who wanted to help,” he added.

By late April, Neumann and his team had delivered around 1,600 shields to users in the region.

The figure is even more staggering if the contributions from all 180 MakerVsVirus hubs across Germany are taken into account — some 100,000 face shields have been sent out in the last weeks. 

'Overwhelming'

Offloading dozens of plastic parts fresh from the 3D printers at his firm outside the city, Stefan Herzig said: “This situation is really overwhelming for everyone.

“It's a nice feeling being able to help, even if my contribution is relatively small.”

The parts were laid on tables at the entrance of the workshop bearing neatly printed labels for new and fulfilled order documents, freshly delivered plastic parts and assembled face shields ready for delivery.

Each face shield comprises a flexible transparent sheet, anchored at top with a 3D-printed plastic part and secured around the head with an elasticated band.

Another 3D-printed plastic part at the bottom helps the mask keep its shape.

Although some homemade components turn out fragile or misshapen, those up to standard are sturdy enough to withstand disinfection and repeated use.

Beyond helping medical and other institutions, a shipment of face shields has even reached the notoriously overcrowded and vulnerable refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.

The online organisation brought together “all these different characters” who are adept at finding technical solutions to create much-needed equipment, said Neumann.

He himself has to organise his voluntary work around a full-time job developing optics. “I'm not getting much sleep or having much of a weekend,” Neumann said.

 

Flexible 

With more professional firms increasingly stepping in to fill large orders for face shields, the former hobbyists are now tackling small batches and more specialist items.

New offerings include an adaptor to fit dispensers from one disinfectant brand onto containers from another as hospitals use whatever supplies they can find.

Another is a plastic hook to relieve the strain on sore ears from wearing facemasks all day.

“In this environment where it's almost in our spare time, we can respond more flexibly than if you had to convert a whole company's production,” Neumann said.

“These are things where we can help quickly with our 3D printers.”

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CULTURE

‘People liked the silence’: How Berlin’s club scene is struggling after lockdowns

Berlin's clubs are suffering from staff shortages, a lack of guests... and neighbours who've grown used to the silence, representatives for the scene say.

'People liked the silence': How Berlin's club scene is struggling after lockdowns

Some operators from Berlin’s club scene are bracing themselves for a difficult autumn. For months now, people have been allowed to dance again and life has returned to normal in the dark corners of Berlin’s famous nightlife scene.

But the clubs have far from recovered from the pandemic. They face staff shortages, rising prices and the prospect of a return to Covid restrictions in the autumn.

“We go into the autumn with huge fear, because the omens are totally unfavorable,” said association head Pamela Schobeß.

Spring and summer went anything but smoothly, she said. “There has been an oversupply of events. People aren’t going out as much, and some are still afraid to move around indoors.”

Money is also an issue. “A lot of people are afraid of rising energy prices.”

The industry lost workers during the pandemic and it’s hard to convince them to come back with the outlook for the autumn looking so gloomy, Schobeß says.

Her colleague Robin Schellenberg tells a similar story. People have switched to various other jobs and would even rather work on a supermarket checkout, which may have been considered less sexy in the past. Now, he says, some have learned to love not having to work nights.

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Schellenberg runs the Klunkerkranich, a small club on a parking garage deck in Neukölln. Because a number of things have become more expensive, they have also had to increase their admission prices.

His impression is that people are going out less often and are deciding more spontaneously. In addition, people in the neighborhood are now more sensitive to noise. “Many people found the silence very enticing,” he said.

Some in the industry wonder what will happen next. Will club admission have to become much more expensive? Will that exclude people who can no longer afford it? And what happens if Covid infection numbers rise sharply?

If masks become mandatory indoors in October, Schobeß believes that would be bad for the clubs. “Even if we don’t get shut down by the state, we’ll actually have to close down independently ourselves,” she reckons.

Masks take all the joy out of the experience, she says. People have drinks in their hands and are “jumping around and dancing” and then security guards have to tell them “please put your mask on.”

The federal government is considering whether states should be able to make masks mandatory indoors starting in October. Exceptions should be possible, such as at cultural and sporting events, for people who have been tested, recently vaccinated and recently recovered.

In the event that Covid numbers soar, the states could then be allowed to tighten the rules and eliminate all exemptions.

READ ALSO: German court declares techno to be music

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