With the widespread shortage of supplies and other challenges amid the spread of COVID-19, many companies, labs, and hobbyists are stepping up to address key needs during the pandemic using 3D printing. Specific products include personal protective face shields, test kits, and even surgical masks, respirators, and ventilator components, and several sources provide roundups of efforts being undertaken.
However, there can be risks from non-experts stepping in with improvised solutions. Italian startup Isinnova recently 3D printed ventilator valves when a local hospital fell desperately short. While it may have been an urgent enough situation to justify the haste, the ersatz components are untested and could cause contamination or performance problems – and the manufacturer has threatened to sue. Similarly, 3D printing leader Formlabs cautions against trying to print N95 masks due to fit issues. And the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recently created a FAQ web page for 3D printing COVID-19-related parts, on which it raises general quality concerns about printed parts.
Those cautions acknowledged, there are ways to successfully enlist 3D printing in the battle against the pandemic without risking unintended harm or liability.
Nonspecialists with spare capacity, smaller service bureaus, and hobbyists:
- Engage with leading printer companies to coordinate efforts. Most major printer manufacturers, such as Stratasys, 3D Systems, Carbon, and Formlabs, are providing printable files, giving guidance on printer/materials settings, and validating designs with regulators and hospitals. Formlabs and others are signing up companies with excess printing capacity and organizing delivery, helping to avoid duplicative efforts. Ventilator parts and respirators are too ambitious for most, but products like face shields and simple tools like Materialise's hand-free door opener or Covestro's face mask clip for first responders are simple ways to get started.
Covestro shares their 3D printing file for their face mask regulator via twitter with this image (Source: Covestro Twitter | File Link)
Leading printer companies and those with specialized expertise:
- Target critical components not available elsewhere. Companies with access to more sophisticated printers and knowledge should accelerate efforts to validate components with medical device companies. 3D Systems has taken up the mantle of 3D-printed ventilator valves from Isinnova's improvised efforts and is testing designs with device manufacturers. Shortages of swabs are another potential critical choke point for testing, so Carbon is working on clinical assessments of 3D-printed lattice designs. Others should look to support these efforts with design input or help with field testing where possible.
- Align with leading-edge efforts and ensure materials supply. Most immediately, proactively engage with leading printing companies to ensure adequate materials availability to keep the supply chain humming, even if it means pulling back sales through other channels. Developing new 3D-printable materials typically takes more time than the crisis will allow, but companies that have medical grades of existing 3D-printable materials, or other specialty materials that could be amenable to 3D printing, should run crash development programs to get them ready. Of course, many materials companies have their own printing capabilities in-house for testing, so they can contribute to production as described above.
Of course, more potential approaches are likely to emerge as 3D printing accelerates innovation efforts – groups at the Leitat Technological Center in Spain as well as at UCSD and MIT have already used 3D-printed parts to create prototype makeshift respirators by mechanically pumping Ambu bag manual resuscitators. Those with 3D printing capabilities should keep watching out for additional opportunities to assist as the crisis response unfolds.