A couple of months ago I wrote an article about 3D printing and the supply chain, looking at how additive manufacturing can and will impact the end to end global supply chain. Specifically, I looked at how companies are beginning to explore on-demand manufacturing rather than traditional manufacturing models, meaning they can keep less physical inventory on-hand. Using a digital representation of parts allows manufacturers to make small changes to digital files quickly at no additional charge, which provides more agility in the manufacturing process.
3D printing has come a long way in recent years, with manufacturing times improving. The time it takes to print items depends on both the quality of the printer as well as the complexity of the item being printed. As we enter a new era with COVID-19 continuing to disrupt supply chains and causing shortages of essential medical equipment, the 3D printing community is stepping in to help.
For those hospital workers on the front lines, this is a terrifying time. In the US, hospitals have been overwhelmed by the volume of patients and the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE includes facemasks, gloves, eye protection, and clothing. The shortage of PPE has left these people at high risk for contracting COVID-19. Some hospitals are attempting to re-use equipment, as little protection is better than no protection.
Aside from the shortage of PPE, the medical world is also facing a shortage of COVID-19 testing swabs and kits, respirators, and ventilators. Without an adequate supply of tests, getting a grasp on the actual number of infected patients is nearly impossible. It also means that people that are incredibly sick are unable to find out of they have COVID-19. The respirator and ventilator shortage will continue to place an emotional and physical strain on hospitals as they have to ration these necessary and life-saving pieces of equipment. Doctors could be forced to choose which patients should receive a ventilator and which should not. Not an envious position to be in.
There has also been a shortage of masks available to the general public. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended that people in the US wear face coverings in public to slow the spread of coronavirus. This is not a substitute for social distancing, but rather an added precaution to help slow the spread. As a result, people are making do with homemade versions using handkerchiefs or other materials. In an article I read the other day, the Washington Post spoke with Grace Jun, assistant professor of fashion at Parsons School of Design and chief executive of Open Style Lab, who wrote this pattern after consulting with the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and the NYU Langone Medical Center. She has shared this pattern for people to create at home.
3D Printing and COVID-19
The 3D printing community is coming together with a number of initiatives to help combat the spread of COVID-19. Many companies and organizations are taking aim at the aforementioned shortages to quickly get materials in the hands of medical professionals, as well as the general public. Here are a few examples of how 3D printing could save lives during this pandemic.
One of the biggest issues right now is the lack of available tests for coronavirus. Formlabs, a Somerville, MA-based company is a developer and manufacturer of 3D printers and related software. However, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the company is now using 250 printers in its Ohio factory to manufacture 100,000 nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing each day. The company plans to begin distributing the swabs to hospitals that have been lacking the necessary test kits to accurately diagnose and treat patients.
NASCAR has a research and technology center that uses 3D printing to build composite parts and the next generation of stock cars. However, now that the NASCAR season has been put on hold, the company is using its 3D printers to churn out PPE for healthcare workers. NASCAR’s printers are running 18 hours a day to manufacture face shields to donate to hospitals. NASCAR is following the lead of its three main manufacturers: Ford, Chevrolet, and Toyota, Ford is working with GE Healthcare to build air-pressured ventilators, with a goal of manufacturing 50,000 units in the next 100 days. Chevrolet (General Motors) is partnering with Ventec Life Systems to build ventilators and has vowed to produce more than 50,000 face masks per day. And Toyota is building face shields and collaborating with medical device companies to speed the manufacturing of ventilators.
As the rush continues to manufacture more ventilators and respirators, the first 3D printed respirator has been developed and approved by medical experts in Spain. A consortium that includes Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB), HP, Leitat, SEAT, Consorci Sanitari de Terrassa (CST), and the Parc Taulí Hospital in Sabadell, designed the 3D printable respirator that works as an emergency device to help patients breathe for a short period of time. The design has been simplified from a normal respirator, meaning that it has less components for easier assembly. The hope is that between 50 and 100 units can be manufactured on a daily basis.
Two other examples of 3D printing to combat COVID-19 apply to both healthcare professionals and the general public. First, Copper3D has put online an open source file for a 3D-printable N-95 mask. Dubbed NanoHack, the mask takes about two hours to print, comes with assembly instructions, and it is recommended that it be discarded after about 8 hours of use. Like most 3D printed items, the quality likely will not be the same as traditionally manufactured items. It should also be noted that this device has not been certified. In Europe, similar projects have emerged including the Pugliese-Sicilian open source mask project, which is a web platform that allow users to freely download and print a mask at home.
A final example of 3D printed materials to help combat COVID-19 comes from Materialise, a Belgian 3D printing company. Materialise has designed a 3D printed door opener that allows people to open doors using their arms, meaning they do not have to touch door handles. The device was designed as experts believe coronavirus can live on metal surfaces for up to a week. The company is offering the printable design for free and making it available all around the world.
As COVID-19 continues to shut down cities, countries, and supply chains, the 3D printing community is stepping up to help alleviate some of the strain. One of the biggest threats to healthcare workers is a lack of personal protective equipment. 3D printing companies around the world are using resources to develop and manufacture face masks and shields to help protect these critical workers on the front line. These companies are also developing additional coronavirus testing kits to ensure a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. The shortage of this necessary equipment will still likely loom large over the industry, but the 3D printing community is doing everything in its power to curb the shortages.