By Jessica Izhakoff, Engagement Manager; Shoumyo Majumdar, Senior Analyst; Mark Speers, Co-Founder and Managing Director
Initial 3D Printing Efforts for COVID-19
The global COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in dramatic demands on healthcare systems throughout the world, as well as the greatest worldwide surge in demand for critical supplies such as ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. Over the past several weeks, many individuals, companies, and organizations have attempted to contribute to the supply of these products. Many companies, including those far afield from the medical device industry, are specifically focusing on redeploying 3D printing capacity by leveraging its ability to quickly ramp up manufacturing of these critical supplies.
Health Advances has previously written on the key manufacturing advantages of 3D printing over traditional processes:
- Rapid prototyping – 3D printing allows for the rapid development of physical prototypes, which can be evaluated and tested, and can lead to near-immediate adjustments to the CAD (computer-aided design) files if necessary
- Lower upfront manufacturing and tooling costs – 3D printing has lower tooling and set-up costs than other processes, which is valuable particularly for lower-volume production
- Complex shapes not easily molded – 3D printing can produce complex shapes without the limitations of cutting and molding technologies
These advantages enable decentralized manufacturing and quick manufacturing start-ups. 3D printing has therefore proven to be a valuable tool to address the exceptionally urgent need for medical supplies and likely saved hundreds of lives by enabling better care for thousands of COVID patients and better safety for thousands of healthcare providers. Manufacturers and designers are working in partnership with healthcare institutions on the design, technical specifications, and production requirements for each of these supplies. Given the large number of manufacturers pivoting to help stem the gap between supply and demand of essential PPE and other medical equipment, healthcare organizations such as the AHA and FDA have published detailed manufacturing guidelines,, including in some cases, full design specifications and CAD files. This is especially useful for those companies that do not normally operate in the biomedical field. Some notable examples of this collaborative approach to 3D printing in the fight against COVID-19 include:
- The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has teamed up with the FDA and NIH to share data and review prototypes for 3D printed products in demand during the COVID-19 crisis
- Recent prototypes include face shields for healthcare workers
- Universities with 3D printing equipment and labs, as well as companies that normally sell 3D printers, materials for 3D printing, or other 3D printed products have begun to develop materials in response to COVID-19 shortages:
- Disposable PPE such as face masks, face shields, isolation gowns, etc.
- 3D printed bristled swab sticks for nasopharyngeal swab tests
- Other products including hands-free door openers, mask adjustment straps, and ventilator splitter valves that allow one ventilator to help multiple patients at a time ,,
Future of 3D Printing for COVID-19
As high volume die cutting, sewing, and plastics bonding operations quickly scale, and traditional PPE manufacturing processes are able to cost-effectively cope with increased demand, we expect 3D printing manufacturers to quickly migrate from PPE disposables to more complex, longer-term applications such as parts for outdated ventilators, parts for modifying existing ventilators, and complex parts for new respirator / ventilator designs. Some of these applications are already being explored:
- An emergency use respirator with several key 3D printed components has been developed and validated in Spain and is ready for manufacture. Moreover, several other companies and organizations are also developing 3D printed emergency respirators for ventilation support in hospitals and ICUs ,
- 3D printed positive and expiratory pressure (PEEP) masks being developed in Europe may help address ventilator shortage
- Oxygen valves and splitter valves for respirators are being designed and manufactured by 3D printers in several countries globally to meet the sharp increase in demand
- Remarkably, a Chinese 3D printing architecture company went as far as creating and marketing 3D printed quarantine booths in the Hubei province in China
3D printing may also enable the replacement of reusable parts that are autoclaved between procedures with disposable parts that are discarded after each use. This will allow these devices to be used far more often each day without any downtime as they are needed more frequently due to the surge of COVID patients. And the migration to disposable components will reduce patients’ and healthcare providers’ fear of COVID cross-contamination. For instance, 3D printed laryngoscope blades show promise as a low-cost tool for deployment in areas with high medical need, or as training tools.
Lastly, 3D printing is uniquely capable of customization of medical devices, equipment, or components personalized to individual patients’ needs in pulmonology and respiratory distress:
- Custom 3D printed airway stents, cannulas, and intubation devices can be printed to match the patient’s airway with a high degree of accuracy
- A specially designed, bioresorbable, 3D printed splint restored breathing in a baby with severe tracheobronchomalacia a few years ago, demonstrating the remarkable potential of customizable devices
- Ongoing research in wearable 3D printed artificial lungs could potentially provide long term respiratory support to patients
Long-Term Role of 3D Printing for Future Pandemics
The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed forced the world to adapt quickly and likely has, as a byproduct, spurred innovation that would have otherwise taken years to materialize. In addition, 3D printing has demonstrated its ability to scale up quickly in a decentralized fashion. It seems that any future emergency response system will have to include a full inventory of this “virtual global factory” of 3D printing capacity so that it can more quickly be mobilized to address local needs. This “virtual global factory” image is even more compelling in developing regions that otherwise quickly fall to the bottom of priority lists and cannot wait for time-consuming shipments and customs clearing processes. Local 3D printing in these regions is a necessity.