By now, most of us in the manufacturing world are familiar with the steady stream of news describing organizations, large and small, providing medical equipment using 3D printers. Face masks, face shields, swabs, and parts for ventilators are the most common—and needed—as the frontline medical community struggles to heal patients while protecting themselves. What could be simpler than to create a design, prep the data, ship it to a printer and send the finished part to a happy user or manufacturer?
It is not as simple as it sounds.
“There are literally hundreds of 3D printing designs to support the current COVID-19 response. Some work, others don’t. Some look great but do not work,” explained Dr. Jenny Chen, M.D., founder and CEO of 3DHEALS, a company focusing on education and industrial research in bioprinting, regenerative medicine, and healthcare applications using 3D printing. She was a moderator for a webinar panel titled “3D Printing Design for COVID-19,” presented April 22.
3D printing is coming to the aid of health workers as well as the masses in providing essential items like masks and face shields.
Since its inception in the Eighties, 3D printing has found applicability in many industries. The latest is essential products. At a time when Covid-19 has brought the world to its knees, with many people struggling for essential items like masks, face shields, etc (which are in short supply), 3D printing has come to the rescue, helping create such products to aid people.
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly-sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object. The advantage of 3D printing is that it enables one to produce complex shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing methods. It has been used in a diverse range of industries, including consumer products, dentistry, prosthetics, among others.
Since the beginning of this year, the COVID-19 outbreak has demonstrated the fragility of global supply chains that provide life-saving equipment including ventilators, masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to medical facilities around the world.
3D printing has long emphasized its power to decentralize global manufacturing by manufacturing locally, but the material with which it operates is still beholden to the global supply chain.
The pro-decentralization argument in favor of additive manufacturing systems generally goes something like this: global supply chains require huge amounts of transportation. Since additive manufacturing systems 3D print products on site without expensive tooling from a 3D design file, the cost of shipping and production is reduced. CAD files are easy to reverse engineer and easy to redesign, greatly reducing time-to-market as well. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, this argument was not airtight by any means. The cost of producing certain non-essential and essential goods (including medical supplies) was still cheaper by traditional methods like injection molding and transcontinental shipping.
IT giant HP Inc. and its network of customers have produced more than 25,000 3D-printed parts for medical gear like respirators and face shields to help with critical shortages of the medical supplies.
Those parts have been shipped to hospitals and healthcare providers in the U.S. and overseas to help deliver critical parts in the effort to battle the COVID-19 pandemic as demand for face shields along with N95-masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) has skyrocketed.
In one example, HP is working in Spain with Príncipe de Asturias Hospital to use 3D printing to produce a respiratory circuit designed to improve the oxygenation of patients with COVID-19, company officials said. The number of parts produced is scaling quickly as requests continue for additional supplies in countries around the world, the company said.
“Our digital manufacturing partners are working non-stop in the battle against this unprecedented virus.”
Additive manufacturing, or 3D Printing has long been trumpeted as the lodestar of a “Fourth Revolution”. In reality, uptake has been limited, it remains somewhat niche, and hype has not met market expectations. Yet as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the 3D printing industry and hobbyists alike are stepping up to help ease the supply chain disruptions by creating and printing urgently needed components.
The major issue for healthcare workers at the moment is the overwhelming numbers of people that are in urgent need of oxygenation; requiring ventilators so they can breathe long enough for their immune system to fight off the worst of the virus.
Prior to COVID-19, 3D printing was most commonly, “used in manufacturing lines or during research and development and prototyping for any sort of device, medical or otherwise. One of the more popular ones are dental aligners. Even companies as large as Invisalign or a Smile Direct Club are using 3D printing to print those aligners,” said Guarav Manchada, director of healthcare at Formlabs, a 3D printing company.
However, the coronavirus is elevating the popularity of 3D printers, bringing them to the forefront of the public’s mind.
3D printing specialist Stratasys is aiming to produce 5,000 disposable face shields in the US alone by the end of this week (March 27) in the fight against the Covid-19 coronavirus.
The PPE equipment for medical personnel consists of a 3D printed plastic frame and a clear plastic shield that guards the entire face of the wearer, under which particulate face masks are usually worn for additional protection. One leading hospital informed Stratasys that it uses more than 1,500 of the face shields over the course of a regular week. The Covid-19 outbreak had reduced the hospital to just six days’ inventory of the equipment.
Scott Drikakis, healthcare segment leader – Americas, Stratasys, explores how 3D printing could enable medical device manufacturers to overcome current limitations, improve clinical validation, and change the game of medical device testing.
The use of 3D printing in healthcare is not a new phenomenon. Those who keenly pay attention to technology developments within the sector will be unsurprised to hear of its use. In recent years, Stratasys has worked with customers across the world to improve patient care and communication, accelerate clinical validation and increase innovation. In Europe, hospitals such as CHU Bordeaux and Guy’s and St Thomas’ have utilized the very latest in advanced, multi-material 3D printing to create patient-specific 3D medical models to help plan complex procedures. Equally, customers such as Nidek Technologies have been able to dramatically accelerate clinical trials when incorporating 3D printing into the device testing process.
Despite these incredible advances, 3D printing has had its limitations in terms of organ realism and biomechanical functionality and, to date, has not offered a testing method which covers all problem areas. This means that many medical device manufacturers are still also reliant on traditional testing methods. These predominantly involve the use of human cadavers, animals or virtual modeling. However, as with the current 3D printing solutions available, each of these methods comes with their own distinct limitations. These can range from ethical concerns to lengthy and costly development processes. As a result, medical institutions are continuing to push for technological advancements to overcome such issues. To help make this a realization, it is essential to create a solution that can directly target the specific drawbacks that each of the traditional methods of testing have, as well as overcome the current limitations of 3D printing itself. The recently launched J750 Digital Anatomy 3D printer claims to address all of these issues. Through using advanced new materials and software, this printer can replicate the actual feel, responsiveness and biomechanics of human anatomy.
AdventHealth Nicholson Center, a Florida-based medical training facility, has launched its Prototype Lab to enable the development of medical devices using additive manufacturing technology.
As an innovative space for healthcare professionals, the Prototype Lab will provide CAD modeling and 3D printing to develop, test and refine inventions to improve clinical care. Jodi Fails, B.S., Biomedical Engineer, and Prototype Lab lead at AdventHealth Nicholson Center explained:
“Our expert team can help bring an idea from ‘napkin sketch’ to reality, and our 3D printing capabilities allow inventors to hold an actual version of their device in their hands for evaluation.”
The potential benefits of 3D printing and its application in cardiovascular medicine are emerging fast, according to an international group of researchers. They have highlighted examples in four core areas in an article published online on 21 October by Interactive Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery.
“3D printing has expanded over the past three decades with growth in both facility implementation and diversity of medical applications,” wrote the authors, led by Dr. Enrico Ferrari from Cardiocentro Ticino in Lugano, Switzerland. “The speed of technological development is increasing and the utility of 3D printing and its application in cardiovascular medicine is tangible.”
Far and away the most common use of cardiovascular 3D printing has been to facilitate care for pediatric patients with congenital heart diseases, although the application of 3D printing in adult cardiovascular diseases also has been on the rise in recent years.