3D printing signs up to fight COVID-19

Hobbyists, small shops, places of education, government and big manufacturers are using 3D printing to help fight coronavirus.

Apple, Covid-19, 3D printing, coronavirus
Peter Sayer/IFA

Situated on a (usually) busy London street, a small print-and-copy shop is 3D printing face masks for health workers at its local hospital.

It isn’t alone.

3D printers are being pressed into use to churn out equipment for medical staff worldwide, and while it’s a drop in the ocean in terms of meeting demand, it’s remarkable how the technology is rising to the challenge.

Can 3D printing support health emergency?

3D printing hasn’t become as mainstream a process as people had hoped. This may be because of the cost of the equipment, the time the process takes, the expense of  raw materials or even the current limitations of the technology.

It does have its uses, of course: NASA used 3D printing to create small spare parts on the space station, major enterprises use the technology to build fast product prototypes, and you’re seeing larger businesses use it for a little component manufacturing.

Now, as we fight a pandemic, everyone in possession of a 3D printer may be able to make some kind of contribution. Universities, schools and other places of education in countries across the planet are switching over to face mask production.

Manufacturers including Airbus in Spain and Germany, Infinite Electronics, Adidas, Nike and Apple are also manufacturing face shields by the thousands. I'm sure there are other big names involved.

Unleashing innovation with 3D

"One of the reasons I love my job is the capability we have for advanced design and quick manufacture. Overnight, we have gone from making aerospace concepts to medical equipment,” said Alvaro Jara, Head of Airbus Protospace, in Getafe, Madrid.

“This genuinely makes a difference in the fight against the pandemic and I couldn’t be prouder of our teams working day and night on this.”

3D printing enthusiasts are also stepping up. In Moray, Scotland, one group is already churning out face visors for National Health Service (NHS) staff. Schools and students are also getting involved.

If you’ve been wearing a mask, you’ll know how uncomfortable they can become for your ears. In Canada, a Boy Scout made headlines with his innovative 3D-printed ear guards, which help make face masks more comfortable to wear for hard-working frontline staff.

This uses an innovative design that’s been made available for 3D printers everywhere at MakerBot. MakerBot has a host of 3D design patterns that may be of use, including nuts, bolts, vacuum replacements, face shields and more.

The need for components exceeds demand

Components are invaluable to medical staff who are struggling to keep machines in action as they fail under the workload and official spare components become harder to source.

Even where replacement parts are available, closed borders, logistical and supply issues mean they may not reach you in time. 3D printing has already saved lives in Italy by replacing such components.

In Paris, the University Hospital Trust has invested in 60 industrial-grade 3D printing systems that are situated inside the hospital where they print vital equipment on demand.

The equipment they are being called on to make includes protective face shields and masks, electrical syringe pumps, intubation equipment and respirator valves.

Can 3D printing replace missing equipment?

Beyond face protection, hospitals are also grappling with a severe shortage of ventilators, forcing them to find alternative ways to get air into desperate patients.

3D printing firms may offer some way to mitigate the lack of this essential equipment. Belgian 3D printing company Materialise has developed a 3D-printable device that transforms standard hospital equipment into a mask that can help coronavirus patients breathe.

The idea is that the solution helps get sick people off ventilators faster and provides – literal – breathing space before they need to be intubated. Another group called BCN3D has designed something similar.

In the U.S., work on using 3D print to create an emergency ventilator system based on a U.S. Army design from 1965 is being led by a group called Helpful Engineering.

“We have partnered with medical professionals to know what would help them the most in this crisis, rapidly trying to design and arrange the production of pragmatic devices to move life-saving air, extend existing tools, or organize volunteers on the ground to bolster medical workers,” says Helpful Engineering on its website.

The truth is, ventilators are so essential that where 3D printing seems to be helping most today seems to be in terms of replacement parts.

Challenges to 3D for medicine

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. MIT professor Martin Culpepper warns that the complexity of face masks means 3D-printed alternatives my not deliver what’s required in technological, hygiene or capability terms.

He also warns on the scale of the problems we face – calling it unwise to foster a perception that medical services are fully equipped, when they simply are not:

“Some hospitals need thousands of pieces of PPE each day, 3D printing just cannot keep up with that demand,” he said.

“However, if you can come up with a great idea for PPE that can be fabricated in a high-rate way that meets demand, then we encourage people to use 3D printing as a means to prototype.”

But governments need help

Governments are taking notice and actively encouraging innovation in this space. Portuguese authorities are working with Lisbon University, Fan3D and others to develop templates and administrative systems to bring citizen-led 3D printing into medical provision.

Elsewhere in Europe, the European Commission is working with the European Association for Additive Manufacturing on projects to produce medical equipment for hospitals tackling the COVID-19 outbreak.

The  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is making similar investigations.

(As I see it, it is likely that some regulatory and patent hurdles will simply be relaxed to enable this, given some medical centers have been targeted by IP enforcement action for printing spare parts.)

Up next

If there’s any good news in the tragedy of COVID-19, it may be that 3D printing has had an opportunity to prove itself as a solution for fast production of essential components for life-saving machines.

This seems to be good for health provision, but it’s also important in that it gives people who own 3D printing solutions an opportunity to feel that they are doing something to help in the struggle against the disease.

It’s empowering communities, creating stories of local heroism, and proving the value of the technology at the same time.

I'm doing as much as I can to find useful stories to empower readers through this time. Please explore what I've managed so far:

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