How 3D Printing is Aiding the Fight Against COVID-19

3D Printing Medical Supplies

As hospitals and frontline healthcare workers continue to struggle with a widespread shortage of medical supplies in the battle against the Coronavirus, a growing number of businesses are looking to 3D printing as a promising solution. A coalition of domestic and multinational businesses, universities, and even individual hobbyists have stepped up to help provide much needed equipment such as face shields, respirator masks, nasal swabs, replacement ventilator parts, hands-free door openers, and even temporary housing.

Rapid Deployment

The sheer number of goods that can be quickly 3D printed is in itself a testament to the technology’s potential to close the fabrication gap.”3D printing actually has the capability to react very, very quickly — in terms of hours you can go from idea, to design, to prototype, to produce,” says acting president of 3D printing and digital manufacturing at HP Ramon Pastor during an interview with CNN Business. HP has produced and distributed more than 50,000 3D printed products in the last two months alone, showing just how extensive the groundswell has become. 

Unlikely Allies

In Newark, New Jersey, 3D printing company Tangible Creative has partnered with their Brooklyn-based rival MakerBot and Columbia University to found the Covid Maker Response. Working together they are able to produce about 2,000 face shields every single day. Volunteers then assemble the shields and distribute them to over 30 hospitals in the area on a daily basis. In their first ten days they managed to produce, assemble, and deliver over 3,000 shields on the fly while still establishing their operations. Since then they have grown to become the largest grassroots manufacturer of personal protection equipment (PPE) in New York City. They’ve even made all the designs and files public and free to download from their website, encouraging hobbyists at home to pitch in. 

Image Credit: Will Kirk / John Hopkins University 

Breathing Room

Perhaps some of the most critically needed supplies are the most mundane. With the majority of COVID-19’s symptoms revolving around the pulmonary system, ventilator units are in short supply and amongst the most sought after pieces of medical equipment at the moment. Typically, each ventilator unit can only handle a single patient at a time. With the addition of a simple 3D printed ‘Y’ shaped valve, the ventilators treatment capacity doubles to two patients. There are also new valves being developed that offer more control over airflow and can handle up to four patients at once. These plastic valves each take less than two hours to produce and can be made by the most modest of 3D printing setups. Both hobbyists in their garage and large 3D printing companies have contributed many hundreds of these valves to hospitals across America, and are in discussions to export them around the globe. 

Image Credit: Materialise

Hands Free

Other low-tech but effective tools in the fight against COVID-19 include things like hands-free door openers. One of the most effective ways to avoid contracting Coronavirus is to simply not touch any surfaces that could possibly have come in contact with a sick patient. A single contaminated doorknob in a highly trafficked building can rapidly spread disease. In fact, researchers from the American Society for Microbiology ran studies that showed just one doorknob in a hospital, hotel, or office building can infect anywhere from 40 to 60% of all workers and visitors in as little as two hours. 

That’s why companies like Materialise have created a 3D printed hands-free door opener which is operated by the forearm instead of the hand. They are easy to use and make, fast to produce, and can effortlessly be retrofitted onto existing handles. After seeing just how effective the handles are at minimizing transmission, Materialise decided to make the designs openly available for free download. “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,” said Bart Van der Schueren, CTO of Materialise.

Testing Kits

In Boston, 3D printing company Formlabs has deployed several hundred printers to mass produce nasal swabs for testing kits, among other PPE items. “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,” says Guarav Manchada, Formlabs’ director of healthcare. A single printer is capable of outputting 300 swabs at the same time, enabling Formlabs to print upwards of 75,000-150,000 swabs every day.

Image Credit: Winsun

Printing Houses

Other unique solutions are looking more towards medium to long term relief. Currently, there isn’t enough data to indicate the extent of the Coronavirus’ impact on the homeless. It is not hard to imagine how disproportionally the virus is affecting the disadvantaged. Many homeless people suffer from underlying medical conditions that predispose them to significantly greater risks from COVID-19. Likewise, the crowded and often unsanitary conditions of homeless camps and shelters along with a highly itinerant population makes the virus extremely difficult to contain in these circumstances. 

That’s where companies like engineering and design firm HDR step in. According to Vartan Chilingaryan, director of structural engineering at HDR, “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. Therefore, large-format 3D printing can be used to deliver structures quickly to respond to the immediate community needs.” It is unclear just how viable this strategy is in the long term, but a rapid-deployment of quarantine housing could go a long way towards reducing the disease’s spread. In Xianning, China, the 3D printing and architecture company Winsun managed to print 15 houses in less than 24 hours. These concrete pods feature a bed, shower, toilet, air conditioning, and electricity; and ease the burden on local hospitals by housing not only the infected, but also weary staff. These small houses each cost less than $4,000 to build and are environmentally friendly because they use recycled sand and construction rubble. Winsun has since announced plans for the deployment of an additional 200 of these quarantine houses. It is still too early to tell, but cheap, stable, fast produced, and environmentally friendly housing shows great promise in dealing with the growing housing crisis across the globe.

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