Additive Manufacturing Innovation
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the global healthcare industry continues to struggle with a shortage of essential medical supplies. With hospitals across the world suffering from this scarcity of medical equipment, the 3D printing industry is stepping up to the challenge, producing various equipment from face shields to oxygen valves, and safety goggles, among others.
Hospitals across the world are getting overcrowded and facing a general lack of highly important Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). At the moment, about half of the global population is on lockdown, with many factories offline or operating at a diminished rate, Shortages of critical medical supplies are a result of increased demand, diminished capacity due to social distancing measures, and supply chain disruption.
Medical Supplies, Just In Time
In March, a hospital in Brescia, one of the worst-hit regions in Italy needed replacement valves for a medical device in their intensive care unit. The hospital struggled to meet this need as manufacturers were unable to fill this need within such short notice. Fortunately, the CEO of Issinova, an Italian startup, got involved, headed to the hospital to draw up the schematics. Under 24 hours, the Brescia hospital received delivery of a hundred replacement valves that worked perfectly with their ICU device. That encounter is believed to have saved about ten lives.
3D-printed breathing valves for COVID-19 patients in Italy Image Credit: Business Insider
The global healthcare industry is at a time of critical need. A host of manufacturers, especially in the auto industry, have been contemplating repurposing their manufacturing plants to produce some of the essential equipment that front line workers need to combat the coronavirus scourge. However, a beacon of hope at this time of critical need has been the additive manufacturing industry, which has seen many new applications for their 3D-printing expertise to create badly needed medical gear.
3D printed quarantine houses in China
The first 3D printing applications in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are believed to have been used in Xanning, China, when authorities struggled to find enough space for those who needed to be quarantined. In came Winsun, a Chinese company that has been 3D printing houses as far back as 2015. This company, according to 3D Natives, deployed its 3D printing expertise to print move-in ready ‘mini’ houses that were equipped with showers and toilets. It took the company a single day to print the walls of these mini houses from a combination of sand and construction ruble.
3D printed face shields in Malaysia
As of April 15, 2020, Malaysia has recorded 5,072 cases of coronavirus. In response, 3D printing professionals and enthusiasts in Malaysia have come together to find ways to support the workers at the forefront of this battle. One key area of challenge that has confronted medical workers in Malaysia is the shortage of face shields. As face shields are single-use disposable material, supply runs out quickly.
Front line workers have become so burdened and worried that they’ve been requesting face shields from the public to help with their work. So far, 67 3D printers in Malaysia have pledged their support to produce up to 10,000 face shields. These shields will be sent to a centralized location after manufacturing for disinfection.
COVID-19 and 3D printing in the US
3D printing entities like Stratasys, Carbon, Materialise, FormLabs, and Prusa Research, among others, have been spearheading the recent coronavirus-inspired 3D printing revolution in the United States. Other manufacturing giants from HP to Ford, Volkswagen, and more are also repurposing their assembly line to produce medical gear for frontline medical workers. While businesses across certain regions of the United States have been made to shut off operations, some, such as Protolabs, a digital manufacturer, have been deemed ‘essential’ enough to remain open for the manufacturing of medical components.
The same applies to SmileDirectClub, a dental startup in the US that is now manufacturing medical supplies via 3D printing alongside its original teeth straightening kits. The PEEP mask made by Materialise has found use as an emergency breathing assistance so that true ventilators can be reserved for use by the most critical patients. This is significant when you consider the fact that America is also facing ventilator shortages. It is also similar to the approach of Northwell Health, one of New York’s largest healthcare providers. Northwell is leveraging 3D printing to convert the Philips Respironics V60 BiPAP machine to a pressure-controlled ventilator that can serve the needs of most non-critical COVID-19 patients.
While the 3D printing response to COVID-19 in the US has been impressive, there’s still room for improvement, considering there are more than 47,000 industrial-scale 3D printers in the country. Of the total installed 442,000 units in the world, the US, along with Germany, France, UK, and China, leads as far as 3D adoption is concerned.
Quality control issues of 3D-printed medical supplies
Manufacturers producing equipment for the healthcare industry are held to stricter and higher quality control standards. To meet these standards, the production process is usually subjected to equally high procedures. Luckily, most of these 3D-printed medical supplies have met and, in some cases, even exceeded conventional requirements.
Let’s take the case of Jinhua, China, for instance, where a large safeguard instrument manufacturing company 3D-printed safety goggles for anti-COVID-19 medical workers using 200 Flashforge 3D printer Guider2. Aside from producing enough products to alleviate the shortage within a short time, the goggles came out lighter and more comfortable. They don’t fog as much and seal far easier compared to regular safety goggles.
3D printing is emerging to help the healthcare industry reduce the strain on resources in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The shorter design cycle as well as the high scalability potential of 3D printing technology, compared to traditional manufacturing, makes it an important complementary resource in this time of need. We anticipate that the attention and acceptance directed towards additive manufacturing will endure even after the current pandemic abates.