The medical supply shortage caused by the novel coronavirus will definitely get some help from medical 3D printing. Various companies are now coming up with innovative strategies and exploring ways to utilize their medical 3D printing technology to build things like valves, ventilators, breathing filters, and face mask clasps. Not only that, but these companies are also making available the design files for parts so that they can be produced anywhere in the world. They are increasingly helping end customers to bridge potential supply chain interruptions by expanding their distributed print-on-demand capabilities. As critical supply chains are failing globally, digital manufacturers are stepping in to crank out ventilator parts, nasal swabs, and so much more.

Why medical 3D printing?

Medical 3D printing also enables a level of customization. Major 3D printing manufacturers in the US are now opening their manufacturing facility and donating plastic so that health organizations and medical supply chain companies can increase the production of the much-needed coronavirus medical supplies like respirator valves and medical face shields to help workers and others avoid spreading germs. People have also taken to social media to share medical 3D printing plans for customizable face masks and are forming groups to build ventilators using 3D printers and other widely available materials.

As the global crisis is increasingly straining supply chains for critical medical products, various digital manufacturing companies are now rushing in to meet immediate demands. There is no doubt that in the absence of an organized, strategic, federally directed effort to ramp up production, the response from manufacturing companies is unfolding in an unplanned fashion. Hospitals, health care providers, manufacturers, and of course, local agencies are leaning on informal business networks or dialing directly to effectively locate companies with the necessary expertise and capacity, which is a daunting task in the current scenario. Various researchers, businesses, and medical centers are forming makeshift coalitions to efficiently coordinate responses as well.

A large number of lives are at stake and are dependent on hospital equipment. COVID-19 is associated with severe respiratory malfunctions and symptoms requiring intensive care in almost 5% of proven infections. When adequate respiratory support is offered, the patient gets the time and opportunity to live through the infection long enough for the antibodies to fight the virus.

These critical gaps in the supply chain can be filled by 3D printing. This most definitely will help ensure that some amount of nasal swabs, face shields, ventilators, and various other products continue to reach hospitals during these troubling times. When COVID-19 cases are exhausting the hospitals and health care facilities and caseloads are literally skyrocketing, medical 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is possibly the only thing right now that offers some kind of solace amidst the otherwise frantic, scattered approach. It is almost the ideal way of producing products and components that would mean the difference between life and death for so many people fighting relentlessly right now.

The role additive manufacturing plays in this regard will only become apparent in the following weeks and will depend mainly on how rapidly and extensively the disease spreads and how quickly suppliers or manufacturers can take the necessary steps across the world to retool and expand capacity. There is clearly not a lot of time to get ready. Not only do healthcare facilities have to add enough ICU equipment and hospital beds when the peak hits, but they will also need to provide protective gear, masks, and other medical equipment to those at the front-line of these operations. It’s best if the supply chains already gear up right now instead of waiting for additional time because there probably will be none.

In an effort organized on GitHub, an ad hoc community of researchers at various renowned and prestigious institutions like Harvard, The University of South Florida, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Stanford have been collaborating in consultation with the FDA, to produce general guidelines for producing 3D printed test swabs. A couple of companies involved in the project include Carbon, Formlabs, EnvisionTEC, Hewlett-Packard, and many more are prepared to begin making specific varieties of swabs to quickly ramp up the manufacturing process and produce as many as 4 million per week!

It’s no secret that as 3D printers can be re-purposed quickly to make low-cost equipment, the technology is also ideally suited to ease the strains the pandemic is placing on the established MedTech supply chains. FDA has outlined the role of medical 3D printing in response to the ongoing global pandemic with some caution. According to MedTechDive, FDA has warned, “3D-printed PPE are unlikely to provide the same fluid barrier, and air filtration protection as FDA cleared surgical masks and N95 respirators.” While FDA has its reservations about 3D printed PPE, it is, however, on board when it comes to using the technology to make accessories, components, or parts for medical devices. The agency has also set out to market for 3D printers advising them to work closely with medical device producers, use strategies laid out for original parts, and check if the components fit and function before installing them in clinical settings.

Right now, the wide availability of the validated designs for the 3D oriented medical devices would definitely take some of the risks out of the field. When these designs are made available globally, anyone with a 3D printer would be able to make a device that has been through some level of testing to validate it works. Thousands of makers are now turning to one Facebook group in particular- Open Sourced Medical Designs to offer tips, share instructions, and encourage one another. The group with almost 52,000 members is pledged to honor this endeavor by collecting, vetting and disseminating open-source designs for things like non-contact thermometers and hand sanitizers.

These efforts may help mitigate any potential disruptions in the medical supply chain due to the COVID-19. They are additionally helping everyone — not just well-resourced manufacturers but also amateurs to learn how they can help provide the required supplies in the time of crisis. This way, they are disseminating information to their communities. Thousands of 3D printed masks have already been made and donated to hospitals, pharmacies, GPs, paramedics, and social care practices. Healthcare workers also have to put themselves at risk of exposure because there is not enough personal equipment. When planning for a disease pandemic, it is essential we protect the health and welfare of those at the front-line.

Additive Manufacturing (AM) offers end to end state of the art medical 3D printing solutions to various players in diverse industries enabling them to build innovative 3D printing applications and is dedicated solely to additive manufacturing technologies. As an additive manufacturing specialist, it works globally and across all borders and languages to reach leading institutions, industry leaders, and organizations offering inspiration and education to an audience comprising of young people, entrepreneurs, students, and professionals. Ultimately, they aim to empower clients to launch innovations that have the potential to forever transform the faces of their industries and transition eventually towards a digitally-enabled manufacturing process.