Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has been a developing trend in manufacturing for the past decade – mainly due to the ability to customise, amend or alter design specifications, material or products with ease, compared with traditional factory production lines.
Part of the reason this technology has become so crucial in the fight against the coronavirus is that any 3D printer can join the effort as long as it has access to digital blueprints. As Shaochen Chen, Professor of Nanoengineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering explains; “As long as the correct materials are used, 3D printing can produce a wide variety of tools in the fight against COVID-19…it can be used for producing testing swabs or even face shields for healthcare workers.”
The ability to rapidly switch production to a new object means allows 3D printing organisations to deliver new supplies where they are needed – to local hospitals, clinics or field hospitals, reducing the logistics burden and easing the pressure on global supply chains. For example, Siemens, a leading medical equipment producer and world leader in advanced manufacturing, has mobilised over 100 of its own printers in the U.S. and Europe to make vital medical supplies, and called its global network of 3D printing customers, including car makers, to help make equipment. GE and Boeing are also 3D printing face masks and Siemens have opened their Additive Manufacturing Network Platform to connect those with 3D printing capabilities to designers, and provide files and designs that allow suppliers worldwide to prepare the parts needed to keep medical facilities running.
Indeed, the sheer volume of companies utilising 3D printing technology to manufacture medical equipment such as ventilators and respirators means that as a collective, the additive manufacturing industry will save hundreds of thousands of lives.
Collaboration appears to be at the centre of most 3D printing efforts to tackle the coronavirus. For example, to develop and produce parts requiring more expertise, large 3D printing companies are holding daily calls to discuss design and testing efforts with medical specialists and government officials. Scott Drikakis, U.S head of health-care for Stratasys Ltd., a major 3-D printing company said he has “never seen such intense cooperation between competitors”.
Meanwhile, HP assembled a consortium of partners to join it printer farms in the U.S. and Spain to make hospital equipment such as face-mask adjusters and face shields. Already, the HP consortium has delivered over 1,000 3D printed parts to local hospitals and initial applications are in the process of being validated for the industrial production of 3D printed face masks, face shields, mask adjusters, nasal swabs, hands-free door openers, and respirator parts. HP were able to mobilise rapidly because their facilities are already certified by the Food and Drug Administration to make medical-grade equipment and as such, the organisation was able to set the precedent for collaboration with a coordinated effort to increase production. Commenting on the project so far, Enrique Lores, President and CEO, HP Inc said: “HP and our digital manufacturing partners are working non-stop in the battle against this unprecedented virus. We are collaborating across borders and industries to identify the parts most in need, validate the designs, and begin 3D printing them.”
Professor Kit Parker from Harvard University and Ric Fulop, Chief Executive of Desktop Metal also focused on collaboration in order to recruit industrial 3D printing companies Formlabs and OPT Industries Inc., to join their project to manufacture printable swabs for testing kits. By working on the original design for testing kit swabs and adapting it for 3D printing, the pair were able to achieve FDA sign off and begin production in a matter of days. Commenting on their project so far, Fulop said; “If you asked me a week ago if somebody could start a whole new thing and in a week be approved by the FDA, and you’re going to make millions of them, I’d have said that’s absolutely crazy.”
In addition, just days ago, EOS GmbH of Germany, a 3-D printing pioneer, launched an industrywide website, 3DAgainstCorona, showcasing global 3D printing research efforts and providing important data, initiatives and downloadable files to allow more with 3D printing capabilities to join the fight. As CEO Marie Langer explains; “Manufacturing is not a cure for COVID-19, but with the shortages of basic medical products like PPEs and respirators, it’s clear that manufacturing is an important cog in the machine needed to battle the virus.”
The 3D Against Corona site offers a myriad of case studies of 3D printing projects that organisations – big and small – are undertaking. For example, Aenium, an aerospace component manufacturer, altered its 3D printing production systems in just two weeks to build filters for desperately needed medical masks by utilising laser technology they usually use for making ultralightweight metal parts, to instead produce a four-layer filter made of medical-grade polymer. These filters have been built to be inserted into HP’s 3D printed masks, or into existing ventilators.
Whilst the actions of these manufacturers are admirable, ensuring the parts they are printing are safe and fit for use it far more difficult than simply uploading a file and pressing ‘print’. 3D printing is still in its infancy and yet there are many complex and important health and safety requirements and regulations for the production for medical equipment that must be adhered to. This is a difficult path to follow whilst responding to global demand. In addition, normally, disposable items like filters, swabs or protective masks would not be 3D printed, but with the potential to save so many people from dying, manufacturers have stepped up, foot the cost and dedicated their teams to the task.
The end of the battle against coronavirus is nowhere in sight, yet already, the world is witnessing the power of collaboration. The production of 3D printed medical equipment is just one example of organisations, experts and communities working together so perhaps, once the threat of the disease has passed, business, industry and society will re-write the rules of competition, placing a higher credence on collaboration for the greater good, than ever before.