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How the 3D Printing Industry is Helping to Tackle the Challenges of the Coronavirus Pandemic

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to spread around the world, 3D printing companies are stepping up to the challenges presented by the pandemic.

One such challenge is the shortage of supplies, particularly in the healthcare industry. The growing number of patients infected with Coronavirus has quickly led to a shortage of medical supplies, including protective face masks and parts for intensive care devices.

In light of the disrupted supply chains, sourcing such supplies is becoming increasingly difficult. That’s why 3D printing technology, known for its ability to create parts locally and on demand, is being used to provide necessary parts and equipment.

Today’s article will be exploring some of the most prominent examples of how 3D printing is helping healthcare facilities to deal with the disruptions caused by the Coronavirus outbreak.

1. 3D-printed valves for intensive care devices

In one story making international headlines, a small team from Northern Italy has helped a hospital struggling with limited supplies of ventilator valves by quickly designing and 3D printing replacement parts.

In Italy, the second most affected country after China, a large number of people currently require intensive care and oxygenation in order to live through the infection long enough for their antibodies to fight it.

Due to the large number of coronavirus cases, the Chiari hospital in Brescia faced a shortage of valves, which are essential components of ventilator breathing machines.

Unfortunately, due to the scale of the demand, the hospital’s supplier was unable to provide the crucial valves, leading a local journalist to reach out directly to the local 3D printing community.

Isinnova, a local 3D printing company, volunteered. The Isinnova team took a sample of the valve, measured it up, re-created it in a CAD program – a process known as reverse engineering – and quickly returned with a 3D-printed version of the valve.

The machines fitted with the 3D-printed valves have reportedly helped at least 10 patients.

While this example showcases the ability of 3D printing to quickly deliver solutions in emergency situations, on-demand and at the point of need, Issinova hasn’t stopped there.

The company has also recently collaborated with sporting goods retail firm, Decathlon, to redesign commercial snorkelling masks to be able to connect them to the ventilator. By doing this, the team hopes to address the shortage of hospital C-PAP masks for sub-intensive oxygen therapy.

This new part, named Charlotte valve, was quickly prototyped using a Stereolithography 3D printer.

After successfully connecting the device to the ventilator body at the Chiari Hospital, the hospital then successfully tested the device on a patient.

Despite the success of the project, however, the inventors emphasise that neither the mask nor the valve are certified, and their use is recommended only in emergency situations.

2. 3D-printed safety goggles aid coronavirus battle

Hospitals around the world have been hit hard by the shortage of protective equipment such as goggles.

To address this issue, a large manufacturing company in China has used 200 plastic extrusion 3D printers to start the mass production of safety goggles.

3D printing helped the company’s R&D team to design, develop and finalise the product within two weeks – a remarkable speed-to-market.

According to the company, the 3D-printed safety goggles are lighter, making them easier to wear, and are better sealed and protected from fog for a longer period of time.

So far, more than 5000 pairs of 3D-printed safety goggles have already been donated to hospitals in China. Now, the company plans to ramp up its 3D printing production, increasing its daily output of safety goggles from 600 to 2,000 units.

While 3D-printed goggles can’t completely eliminate shortages, they can offer support to hospitals until traditional supply chains are back to normal.

3. 3D printing protective face shields for medical professionals

[Image credit: Prusa Research]

Face shields are personal protective equipment (PPE) devices that are used to protect medical personnel from splashes, sprays and spatter of body fluids.

As with safety goggles and respirator valves, face shields are in short supply, with some hospitals forced to reuse disposable units or improvise solutions using commercial products not intended for this use.

As a result, there have been several initiatives to3D print face shields instead.

One comes from Polytechnic University in Hong Kong. Working with local manufacturers, the university’s 3D printing lab is planning to produce up to 30,000 face shields per day by the end of March.

The face shield consists of a 3D-printed frame, worn against the forehead, which holds a plastic sheet covering the entire face. The single-use shields can be worn over surgical masks, which doctors and nurses already wear.

Similarly, desktop 3D printer manufacturer, Prusa Research, has started the production of protective shields for the Czech Ministry of Health.

The company, which runs a factory of over 1,000 3D extrusion printers, can produce 800 parts per day, with only a fifth of its capacity currently used for this project. It takes about 2 hours to print the different parts that make up the face mask, using PETG material.

The number of parts produced daily will also increase, as the company is planning to donate 10,000 units.

Furthermore, Stratasys has mobilised its global 3D printing resources to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first project from the 3D printer manufacturer will see 5,000 3D printed full-face shields produced by 27th March.

The key benefits of 3D printing in all three cases is the ability to act fast and use local manufacturing capabilities to fill supply gaps.

4. Mologic uses 3D printing to prototype COVID-19 test kits

3D printing technology is useful not only for the production of scarce medical supplies but also for accelerating product development.

One example of this is Mologic, a diagnostic testing company that is using Formlabs’ 3D printers to rapidly prototype COVID-19 test kits. With its test kits, the company aims to enable faster diagnosis of the virus at the point of need – and help in preventing the spread of the virus.

Mologic’s rapid test kit will be able to work without electricity and won’t need a laboratory analysis to give results for coronavirus. This will make it possible for health workers to detect cases and place people under quarantine more quickly.

The ability to quickly produce high-quality detailed prototypes of a test kit through 3D printing speeds up the device development process. According to Mologic, the ability to produce parts in a matter of hours means that it can quickly move from testing to production.

The end-use test kits will reportedly also be 3D-printed, using Formlabs’ biocompatible Surgical Guide Resin.

5. A 3D-printed emergency respiration device

An alliance between Free Zone Consortium (CZFB), a public economic revitalisation organisation in Spain, HP, a hardware manufacturer, Leitat (Tecnio), a technological centre, and automotive company, SEAT, has developed a 3D-printed emergency respiration device to support hospitals and intensive care units.

What’s exciting about the new device is that its design and components have been simplified to the maximise its robustness and to facilitate faster production and assembly.

The device has also been medically validated by an expert in mechanical ventilation at the Hospital Parc Taulí in Sabadell.

The 3D printing production of the device is said to be industrially scalable, with the alliance looking to reach a production capacity of between 50 and 100 units per day by the end of March.

The challenges of using 3D printing to deal with medical supply shortages

Of course, medical 3D printing also raises several concerns about product safety and the legality of printing what are, in many cases, patent-protected devices.

In this regard, CECIMO, the European Association for the machine tool industries, recently announced that EU Member States should consider temporarily waiving some of the Medical Device Directive requirements for strategic goods during this period of crisis.

In the meantime, many 3D printing companies, including the likes of Carbon, Formlabs and Shapeways, have started partnering with medical manufacturers to 3D print medical supplies that are in critical need.

Using actual medical expertise when designing and producing 3D-printed parts helps to ensure that issues such as biocompatibility are resolved before proceeding.

Overcoming supply chain challenges with 3D printing

Never have the benefits of 3D printing for supply chains been on greater display than during this time of disruption and uncertainty.

With speed being one of the top priorities for hospitals waiting for supplies, 3D printing is enabling critical medical products to be produced more quickly.

What’s more, supplies can be manufactured closer to the point where they will be used, reducing the distance between manufacturer and medical staff and patients.

Encouragingly, the 3D printing community has also come together to help in the crisis by providing access to the 3D printing facilities and any other services that may be necessary. 3D printing companies that want to provide their support can also connect on social media, with groups such as these being formed online.

Ultimately, this activity showcases the ability of both 3D printing technology and the community to rapidly adapt to changing environments and respond to unforeseen emergency head-on.