More than a half million people across the world have been infected with the novel coronavirus. While the spread in China has slowed, the US is facing an alarming uptick. The overwhelming spread of COVID-19 has left physicians and hospitals at a loss, especially in regards to healthcare equipment, including masks, ventilators, and basic coronavirus testing kits. 3D printing, however, may be able to help replenish supplies.

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Prior to COVID-19, 3D printing was most commonly, “used in manufacturing lines or during research and development and prototyping for any sort of device, medical or otherwise. One of the more popular ones are dental aligners. Even companies as large as Invisalign or a Smile Direct Club are using 3D printing to print those aligners,” said Guarav Manchada, director of healthcare at Formlabs, a 3D printing company.

However, the coronavirus is elevating the popularity of 3D printers, bringing them to the forefront of the public’s mind.

“The COVID-19 pandemic quickly identified shortages of important healthcare equipment and supplies that were not immediately available,” said Vartan Chilingaryan, director of structural engineering at HDR, an architectural engineering design firm involved with 3D printing.

“We have now seen important respirator valves and much-needed medical personal protection equipment such as face masks being 3D printed to bridge the fabrication gap for these essential items,” Chilingaryan said. “The current pandemic has forced us to think more innovatively, and we will see more examples of 3D printing as the demand for immediate fabrication continues.”

Coronavirus supplies developed through 3D printing

3D printing is an overarching term for a variety of technologies. Within those, there are mechanisms that can print nanoscale designs and pieces extending up to meters, said Michael Petch, editor-in-chief of the publication 3D Printing Industry.

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“The materials palette, of individual machines, is also broad with ceramics, metals, polymers, and biomaterials available,” Petch said. “3D printing of medical devices and PPE is, rightly, a tightly regulated area–and the enterprises that produce such components undergo lengthy validation and certification processes with the appropriate regulatory bodies.

“That said, there is a great deal of expertise in the 3D printing industry that is currently being brought to focus on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.

Here are some of the medical supplies being created via 3D printing in the wake of the coronavirus.

  • Face masks

One 3D printer manufacturer exploring ways to make masks is Italian company Roboze, Petch said.

“The company has a high-end FDM system that can print in PEEK–a polymer material more familiar to the medical world,” Petch said. “Roboze has printed molds that can be used to thermoform masks. 3D printing does not always have to be used in the end product and can often be more useful in the manufacturing process chain. In this case, the 3D-printed mold can be combined with a higher throughput technology.”

Face shields are another option companies are looking into, Petch added.

“Many companies in our community are printing these, and their donations have been accepted by hospitals across the world,” he said. “A 3D-printed headband is combined with a transparent PETG sheet to make this PPE item. However, we have reports that it is increasingly difficult to acquire the transparent sheets required.”

  • Testing kits

Formlabs is helping with the development of testing kits, which are being used by hospitals this week, Manchada said.

“Within testing kits, it’s not very commonly discussed, but the swabs that are required–the Q-Tip style swabs that are required to take a sample from the nasal cavity–are out of stock or running out of stock very quickly across the US,” Manchada said.

On one 3D printer, Formlabs can print about 300 swabs at one time, and they have about 300 printers, he added.

  • Ventilator parts

Formlabs is also helping with ventilators. As more people get sick, hospitals are running short of the life-saving devices. 3D printing can help optimize the functionality of ventilators, however, Manchada said.

“From what we’ve seen, it’s pretty challenging to print an entire ventilator,” Manchada noted. “We can certainly focus on components, but one area where we do have at least lab test success, is printing a ventilator splitter. That would enable one ventilator to provide ventilation support to either two, three, or four patients–that in essence quadruples the capacity of that one ventilator.”

  • Door opener

3D printing also helps with less high tech devices, such as door openers, which are crucial in helping contain the spread of this disease.

“Materialise has designed a 3D-printed door opener that makes it possible to open and close doors with your arm, removing the need for direct contact with door handles,” said Bart Van der Schueren, CTO of Materialise.

“It soon became clear that more people could benefit from this design, and we decided to make it available for free. Anyone with access to a 3D printer can download the design and 3D print it locally in a matter of hours. So far, the design has been downloaded more than 30,000 times,” he said.

  • Temporary housing

Another impact of the coronavirus involves housing, which 3D printing can also help with, said Kate Diamond, HDR’s civic design director.

“Beyond the absolutely immediate response to the pandemic, there are likely to be medium- to longer-term impacts. We don’t have sufficient tests to evaluate the impact of living on the streets relative to COVID-19,” Diamond said.

“The homeless crisis has already been shown to have serious health implications,” she added. “While it is important to address the immediate concerns, we must keep our eyes on the systemic challenges.”

“HDR is leading the design of buildings to be constructed using 3D printing technology,” said Chilingaryan. “We are interested in delivering highly sustainable structures to respond to the immediate housing crisis.

“It’s important to note that large format 3D printing has the ability to produce structures at a rapid pace with limited materials across the globe,” Chilingaryan said. “Therefore, large-format 3D printing can be used to deliver structures quickly to respond to the immediate community needs.”

3D printing is an overall useful method for bringing products to market in a short time, which is being proven during the coronavirus crisis, Van der Schueren said.

For more, check out 5 ways the future of work is changing, due to coronavirus on TechRepublic.

Also see

Formlabs 3D printed swab
Image: Formlabs