How 3D printing companies are responding to the coronavirus crisis

How 3D printing companies are responding to the coronavirus crisis

“Now more than ever we must contribute with our technology for the benefit of the most vulnerable”.

A number of 3D printing companies are believed be amongst the 1,400 businesses pledging their support to the UK Government to produce parts for ventilator equipment.

As I sit at my makeshift desk, waving to my team mates over Skype as TCT commences working from home in a bid to curb the coronavirus pandemic, the reality of the crisis we all suddenly find ourselves in looms.

But as I struggle to turn my attention away from the growing stats and figures filling up my newsfeed or the empty shelves in my local supermarket which serve as a constant reminder (this crisis will, if anything, make me a more creative cook), there is another movement gaining momentum that’s curbing the worry and giving me hope.

A surge of additive manufacturing (AM) companies from service bureaus to makers have publicly declared their willingness to support the manufacture of much needed life-saving medical equipment. As the number of cases increases, our regular supply chains are struggling to facilitate demand for crucial items such as respiratory devices and protective masks. Here in the UK, our NHS is said to have around 5,900 vital ventilators but it is believed we could need almost quadruple that number to care for Covid-19 patients. It’s a similar situation across the world and AM companies believe this is the time to step up.

In Italy, the second worst affected country after China, 3D printing is already having an impact following a fast reacting exchange between an Italian journalist, the founder of a Milano Maker Lab and engineering company Isinnova. The collaboration led to the successful production of a prototype for a replacement valve for respiratory aids, which were then printed in a powder bed process in PA12 by AM provider Lonati SpA, and sent to a hospital in Brescia. The manufacturer was able to produce 100 within a day, at a cost of less than 1 Euro each.

Earlier this week we shared how the UK Government is calling on the UK manufacturing supply chain to switch their production to manufacture “as many new ventilators as possible.” A number of 3D printing companies are believed be amongst the 1,400 businesses which have already pledged their support including 3T Additive Manufacturing, an ISO13485 approved service provider. 3T says it has the capacity to produce metal and polymer parts in a variety of materials for the medical industry and believes it could help with the manufacture of casings, clips, fixturing and more.

“The benefit 3T can offer at the moment is a 24-hour turnaround on polymer parts, and using laser sintering technology means that we can manufacture hundreds of parts at the same time with little to no finishing requirement,” Victoria May at 3T, told TCT. “No support removal means as soon as the machines are cool, the parts are ‘broken out’ of the machine, blasted, and then ready to go. All we require is a 3D file.”

British engineering and metal AM firm Renishaw is one of the companies the Cabinet Office has approached directly to assist in this national effort.

Renishaw’s Chris Pockett told TCT: “We have judged that our most useful role in this challenge is to offer our services to rapidly produce components for the devices using our in-house additive manufacturing, machining and electronics capabilities. We have formally communicated this to the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and we are already in contact with some of the teams that are working on ventilator designs.”

Over in the U.S., Silicon Valley 3D manufacturing company Carbon says it is on hand with its network of contract manufacturing partners using its Digital Light Synthesis technology to print polymeric parts, and believes AM can help overcome the challenges of traditional supply chains, particularly in the face of shut-downs and global transportation disruptions. So far, the company has been developing designs for face shields and swabs for coronavirus test kits. Dr. Joseph DeSimone, Carbon’s Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board, cited Carbon’s cloud capabilities and engineering-grade materials as valuable assets in tackling the crisis and urged companies, governments, and others to reach out.

He told TCT: “Adaptable and diversified global supply chains are essential now and into the future as we confront major disruptions caused by pandemics or other significant events like earthquakes or hurricanes. For example, Carbon printers are all connected to the cloud, so when such a disruption occurs, even if one facility goes down, digital designs for parts can easily be shifted to and manufactured at another facility as needed. We are encouraged that manufacturing facilities that house Carbon printers, including facilities in Asia that were recently suffering some of the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, are back up and running.”

Similarly, digital manufacturing company Protolabs has managed to turn around thousands of components for coronavirus test kits in just 24 hours, and is said to be working on a new multi mould production order for a large medical provider.

Fast Radius, one user of Carbon’s DLS technology, says it has already been approached to help design and produce some parts that support life saving functions.

Lou Rassey, Fast Radius CEO, told TCT: “One of the benefits we’ve long talked about with additive manufacturing is how it unlocks speed – speed of design iteration, part production, and fulfilment. In a crisis like the one we are experiencing, speed is critical. We’re seeing, in real time, how engineers and manufacturers are able to produce parts for life-saving devices at a fraction of the cost and time required with conventional manufacturing.”

Rassey explained how the company currently produces medical parts used outside the body in various types of diagnostic and support equipment, many of which are in need right now. The company is building out a network of design and manufacturing companies who want to help across AM, machining and injection moulding, and inviting companies to participate.

HP has also shared its plans to assist, leveraging its large Digital Manufacturing Networkto help design, validate and produce essential parts for medical responders and hospitals with Multi Jet Fusion.

“Digital manufacturing can be a huge help in quickly filling parts shortages, creating new and more effective designs, and helping bridge disrupted supply chains,” Ramon Pastor, interim President of HP’s 3D Printing & Digital Manufacturing business, commented. “That’s why we are mobilising both our own internal team, as well as collaborating with our global partner community, to design, validate, and begin producing critical parts for medical responders and hospitals – respirator valves, breathing filters, face mask clasps, and more. We are also making our proprietary design files freely available so they can be produced where and when needed.

Some desktop machine manufacturers are offering their resources directly to hospitals and certain projects. BCN3D for example, a Barcelona-based outfit is offering up its farm of 63 polymer extrusion machines including its Sigma, Sigmax and BCN3D Epsilondual extrusion printers.

Xavier Martínez Faneca, BCN3D CEO shared with TCT: ” In the current world crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic we can not stay behind and from BCN3D we want to offer from our headquarters in Spain all our technological power of 3D FFF printers to help all those hospitals and researchers who need 3D printing to manufacture parts of respiratory machinery and any equipment that allows to care for patients [of] this virus. We are not going to be left behind and now more than ever we must contribute with our technology for the benefit of the most vulnerable”.

Meanwhile, Josef Prusa, the founder of desktop 3D printer manufacturer Prusa Research, told TCT the company is starting production of protective shields for the Czech Ministry of Health. The company, which runs a factory of over 1,000 3D printers, says it will donate 10,000 units as a starting point. Much of Prusa Research’s community of makers have come out in force offering their help to the cause. However, like many, Josef has warned against the false sense of security in 3D printed respirators and advised that the company is reaching out to professionals who can verify and test their designs before manufacturing.

It echoes concerns around the reality of crowd sourcing these kinds of devices. Medical equipment needs to undergo stringent testing and validation before approval and even then, is typically only manufactured by approved suppliers to ensure patient safety.

Away from FDM, desktop stereolithography leader Formlabs has established a support network which invites its users to volunteer their time and equipment. The company has, however, been careful to communicate that is is working with hospitals, medical professionals and state/federal agencies, to print and and test parts. Dávid Lakatos, CPO at Formlabs tweeted urging anyone “just printing something that looks like a mask”, could potentially do more harm than good and stressed the importance of involving medical professionals before providing these items to patients or healthcare providers.

While there are many 3D printer owners with the best of intentions offering up their capabilities, there is of course pause for concern about the safe implementation of unregulated parts and an unnecessary rush to reinvent the wheel with consortiums and projects popping all over the world. There are questions around liability should one of these devices fail. Would it be down to the designer? The machine manufacturer? The maker? Which is why many people are calling for a more organised approach.

Kevin Quigley, owner of UK-based product design company Quigley Design, is wary of the Government mobilising manufacturers to develop new ventilators and devices.

“This whole situation is about speed,” Quigley told TCT. “The ICU situation is ramping up by the hour. If you want speed you look at production rates – you don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Developing a complex medical device like this is not easy and if I have learned one thing in 30 years it is that just because you know a lot about one sector doesn’t mean it transfers directly to another. Perhaps, technically, some of the same principles apply but as a designer you need to look at the entire use case – design, manufacture, reliability, safety, use by trained and untrained staff, etc. I just point the naysayers to the instruction manuals that come with these devices!”

He added that he believes the UK Government would be better off turning its attention to existing OEMs who already have the necessary data for parts and assembly, and help them with funding to increase supply.

In terms of 3D printing, he added that an “additive or subtractive” twin would be the best approach, whereby validated part data and specifications are ready to be deployed for on-demand manufacture at the point of need.

It’s not just medical parts where 3D printing is offering creative solutions. Belgian company, Materialise, a company which has long believed AM can create a healthier world, has released a design for a simple hands-free device to avoid contact with door handles. Many individuals and organisations like Mayo Clinic have already shared their prints of the design.

“These initiatives demonstrate that our industry can speak with one voice and offer a positive contribution by harnessing the true power of 3D printing,” said Kristof Sehmke, Communication Manager at Materialise. “We have made the [door opener] design available for free and we call upon the 3D printing community to download the file and 3D print it locally. That’s the power of 3D printing: a concept can be turned into a 3D design and 3D printed in a matter of hours. By making the design available digitally, it can be produced on 3D printers everywhere and made available around the world almost immediately. As travel and transport gets jeopardised as the result of the Corona virus, the ability to manufacture locally becomes more important”

The things we need now; speed, innovation, on-demand manufacture, are the kinds of promises the additive manufacturing landscape was built on, and now, with the right call to action and support from governing bodies, it will hopefully get the chance to fulfil them.