For hospitals experiencing shortages of medical supplies that are needed to treat people with COVID-19, some relief may come from 3-D printing, which could prove to be a stopgap means of producing critical parts. Already, 3-D printing companies—such as Carbon, Stratasys, and Ultimaker—are offering their expertise in the effort against the pandemic.
“This is our moment as an additive manufacturing community,” said Joseph DeSimone, chairman of Carbon, on a webinar the firm held March 23 about the coronavirus response. “This is where distributed manufacturing is really going to shine.”
A dramatic illustration of 3-D printing’s potential came recently from Italy. A hospital was in need of critical breathing valves that it couldn’t procure through normal channels. Two engineers, Cristian Fracassi and Alessandro Ramaioli of the Italian start-up Isinnova, started fabricating them with their 3-D printer.
The pair had to reverse-engineer the parts after the original manufacturer wouldn’t send them designs, citing a lack of regulatory approval. Fracassi defended the volunteers’ action in a Facebook post, comparing it to throwing a rope to someone who has fallen into a ravine. “We don’t believe that at that moment there are many questions about what the rope is in accordance with or that it belongs to others,” he wrote.
But red tape and the time required to design and print parts means 3-D printing isn’t likely to be a widespread solution to medical device shortages, cautions Dayton Horvath, a principal at the investment bank NewCap Partners and an independent 3-D printing consultant. “3-D printing help offered by printer manufacturers and service providers will suffice at a moment's notice assuming regulatory compliance but is ultimately limited relative to the scale of expected demand; a joint effort with traditional manufacturing should be the broader focus,” he says.
On the webinar, DeSimone said Carbon can help in three areas: face shields, testing swabs, and replacement parts for critical medical equipment like ventilators.
The California-based firm is modifying open-source face-shield designs to work in its printers and plans to distribute the designs and processing protocols to its clients. The frame that holds the visor to a person’s head can be printed with Carbon resins. The transparent shield will be “off the shelf” plastic sheet that fits into the frame after being stamped with a three-hole punch.
Carbon is also working on printable designs for nasopharyngeal COVID-19 testing swabs that would be made with a resin intended for dental applications. The firm has already distributed prototypes to clinics for evaluation. DeSimone said it isn’t “out of the question” for Carbon machines to ultimately churn out half a million to several million swabs per week.
Stratasys says it plans to make 5,000 face shields by the end of the March 23 week at its facilities in Minnesota, Texas, and California, which do contract 3-D printing. The firm is also working with university volunteers and has published the design for public use.
“The strengths of 3-D printing—be anywhere, print virtually anything, adapt on the fly—make it a capability for helping address shortages,” Stratasys CEO Yoav Zeif says in a statement.
Meanwhile, Ultimaker is publishing contact information for its network of printing hubs and experts so hospitals in need can reach them. The company is also making its own machines and designers available to hospitals that want help engineering critical parts.
This story was updated on March 24, 2020. A quote from Horvath was modified to better explain that medical 3-D printing will work cooperatively with the traditional manufacturing industry to be more useful.