COVID-19 And 3D Printing
A couple of months ago, my colleague Chris Cunnane – a Research Director in Supply Chain Management at ARC Advisory Group – wrote an article about 3D printing and the supply chain, looking at how additive manufacturing can and will impact the end to end global supply chain. He looked at how companies are beginning to explore on-demand manufacturing rather than traditional manufacturing models, meaning they can keep less physical inventory on-hand. Using a digital representation of parts allows manufacturers to make small changes to digital files quickly at no additional charge, which provides more agility in the manufacturing process.
3D printing has come a long way in recent years, with manufacturing times improving. The time it takes to print items depends on both the quality of the printer as well as the complexity of the item being printed. As we enter a new era with COVID-19 continuing to disrupt supply chains and causing shortages of essential medical equipment, the 3D printing community is stepping in to help.
For those hospital workers on the front lines, this is a terrifying time. In the US, hospitals have been overwhelmed by the volume of patients and the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE includes facemasks, gloves, eye protection, and clothing. The shortage of PPE has left these people at high risk for contracting COVID-19. Some hospitals are attempting to re-use equipment, as little protection is better than no protection.
Aside from the shortage of PPE, the medical world is also facing a shortage of COVID-19 testing swabs and kits, respirators, and ventilators. Without an adequate supply of tests, getting a grasp on the actual number of infected patients is nearly impossible. It also means that people that are incredibly sick are unable to find out if they have COVID-19. The respirator and ventilator shortage will continue to place an emotional and physical strain on medical workers as the necessary, life-saving pieces of equipment are rationed. Doctors could be forced to triage patients and decide who will receive a ventilator, and have a chance of living, and who will die.
There has also been a shortage of masks available to the general public. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended that people in the US wear face coverings in public to slow the spread of coronavirus. This is not a substitute for social distancing, but rather an added precaution to help slow the spread. As a result, people are making do with homemade versions using handkerchiefs or other materials.
3D Printing and COVID-19
The 3D printing community is coming together with a number of initiatives to help. Many companies and organizations are taking aim at the shortages to quickly get materials in the hands of medical professionals, as well as the general public. Here are a few examples of how 3D printing is saving lives during this pandemic.
One of the biggest issues right now is the lack of available tests for coronavirus. Formlabs, a company based in Somerville in Massachusetts, is a developer and manufacturer of 3D printers and related software. However, during this pandemic the company is now using 250 printers in its Ohio factory to manufacture 100,000 nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing each day. These swabs are necessary components in test kits and are used to accurately diagnose and treat patients.
NASCAR has a research and technology center that uses 3D printing to build composite parts for the next generation of stock cars. However, now that the NASCAR season has been put on hold, the company is using its 3D printers to churn out PPE for healthcare workers. NASCAR’s printers are running 18 hours a day to manufacture face shields to donate to hospitals. NASCAR is following the lead of its three main manufacturers: Ford, Chevrolet, and Toyota, Ford is working with GE Healthcare to build air-pressured ventilators, with a goal of manufacturing 50,000 units in the next 100 days. Chevrolet (General Motors) is partnering with Ventec Life Systems to build ventilators and has vowed to produce more than 50,000 face masks per day. And Toyota is building face shields and collaborating with medical device companies to speed the manufacturing of ventilators.
As the rush continues to manufacture more ventilators and respirators, the first 3D printed respirator has been developed and approved by medical experts in Spain. A consortium that includes Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB), HP, Leitat, SEAT, Consorci Sanitari de Terrassa (CST), and the Parc Taulí Hospital in Sabadell, designed the 3D printable respirator that works as an emergency device to help patients breathe for a short period of time. The design has been simplified from a normal respirator, meaning that it has less components for easier assembly. The hope is that between 50 and 100 units can be manufactured on a daily basis.
Copper3D has put online an open source file for a 3D-printable N-95 mask. Dubbed NanoHack, the mask takes about two hours to print, comes with assembly instructions, and it is recommended that it be discarded after about 8 hours of use. Like most 3D printed items, the quality likely will not be the same as traditionally manufactured items. It should also be noted that this device has not been certified. In Europe, similar projects have emerged including the Pugliese-Sicilian open source mask project, which is a web platform that allow users to freely download and print a mask at home.
Forward-thinking supply chain practitioners have long seen the potential for additive manufacturing to print spare parts as needed, rather than having to store parts that are rarely ordered. Supply chain executives have been monitoring the technology, waiting for it to mature. Perhaps this crisis will open more supply chain practitioners’ eyes to the possibilities of 3D printing.
Chris Cunnane was the primary author of this article.