How 3D Printing Is Helping Healthcare Deal With COVID-19

April 9, 2020 - 7 minutes read

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The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has disrupted our global society and economy on an unprecedented scale. As critical supply chains in the healthcare sector falter, digital manufacturers in the 3D printing space are stepping up to deliver much-needed equipment. These ad hoc medical developers are cranking out ventilator parts, face shields, nasal swabs, and more.

Adapting to the Times

Massachusetts-based Formlabs usually sells 3D printers — not 3D-printed products. The company recently pivoted 250 printers in its Ohio factory to manufacturing up to 100,000 COVID-19 test nasal swabs per day. Usually, these machines would be building dental product samples for marketing purposes. But desperate times call for innovative measures.

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Across the United States, hospitals have been struggling to acquire the necessary tools and equipment to diagnose and treat patients during the coronavirus outbreak. Formlabs is in the process of starting to ship their swabs to some of these facilities, such as Tampa General Hospital in Tampa, Florida and Northwell Health in New York City.

The demand for supplies has been overwhelming. “I can’t even tell you how many hospitals, and various other health institutions and health-care providers and governments, have asked us to help out with the situation,” explains David Lakatos, the Chief Product Officer at Formlabs.

Luckily, Formlabs isn’t alone in taking on the monumental task of manufacturing medical supplies during this crisis. While the U.S. federal government has failed to create a clear, organized effort to ramp up production, a number of 3D printing companies have taken up the mantle to meet immediate needs.

Solving Critical Gaps in the Supply Chain

The number of COVID-19 cases around the world is expected to skyrocket in the next few weeks. It’s a grim projection, especially when you consider that the U.S.’s total number of cases just passed 400,000 at the time of writing this article. By addressing significant gaps in the supply chain now, 3D printing companies can help ensure that we’re better prepared in the near future.

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It’s worth noting that this frantic race to manufacture equipment is far from the ideal way of producing components; 3D printing, in this case, is certainly a stopgap measure. But it’s also definitely better than nothing — and it could mean the difference between life and death for many people in the coming weeks. Ultimately, 3D printing’s role in all of this depends on the rate of disease spread and how quickly manufacturers can adapt their facilities to meet demand.

Vicki Holt is the Chief Executive of Protolabs, a rapid manufacturing and injection molding company. She knows time is of the essence: “We don’t have a lot of time to get ready. We’ve got to add enough hospital beds and ICU equipment to be ready when the peak hits.”

To aid these efforts, researchers from Harvard, Stanford, University of South Florida, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center are openly collaborating on GitHub to produce proper guidelines for manufacturing 3D-printed test swabs. Recently, this coalition announced that a few companies, such as Formlabs, Carbon, and Hewlett-Packard, were ready to begin producing specific swab varieties and could ramp up manufacturing to 4 million a week.

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Per the announcement, hospitals in need of immediate supplies can contact their state emergency management agencies to request some.

Some of the 3D Printing Efforts Underway

Here are a few of the other 3D printing efforts currently underway to help humanity tackle COVID-19:

Redwood City, California-based Carbon is collaborating with Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences arm, to design face shields. This protective equipment goes a long way towards stopping the spread of COVID-19, but they’ve been in short supply at many U.S. medical facilities. Carbon’s team has produced and sent prototypes for several San Francisco hospitals to evaluate.

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South Carolina’s Prisma Health has secured the FDA’s emergency authorization to 3D print VESper, a splitter tubing that could enable a single ventilator to help up to four patients experiencing respiratory problems. Formlabs is also evaluating ventilator splitter designs. However, the American Association for Respiratory Care and the Society of Critical Care Medicine have advised against ventilator sharing: “It is better to purpose the ventilator to the patient most likely to benefit than fail to prevent, or even cause, the demise of multiple patients.”

Need specific metal components for your medical devices? Burlington, Massachusetts-based Desktop Metal has launched a site where manufacturers can request them. Check it out here.

Protolabs is working with a team at the University of Minnesota to rapidly develop and test six components for a low-cost ventilator. An MIT team is working on a similar project. If successful, these simplified contraptions could allow hospitals to produce their own ventilators if needed.

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Scaling to Address Outbreak Escalation

As the outbreak escalates in the next few weeks, Formlabs has stated that it could add more printers if necessary to scale up its daily production of nasal swabs. The company was able to jump on this initiative early on because it had already registered with the FDA to manufacture other medical products that go into people’s mouths.

The coronavirus has wreaked havoc across the world. But in the midst of all this chaos, it’s heartwarming and inspiring to see so many innovators rise to the occasion and help humanity in any way they can. We have no doubt that scaling some of these production processes will be an absolute necessity; but we also have no concerns that many of these organizations are ready to do whatever it takes to save lives.

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In the meantime, let’s all do our part to flatten the curve. Wash your hands. Practice safe social distancing. And help others when you can. We may all have to stand six feet apart. But we’re fighting this pandemic together.

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