3D Printing Supports Fight Against Covid-19

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As Covid-19 continues to spread across the globe consumption for the most basic medical supplies is increasing by orders of magnitudes. Due to disrupted production processes and supply chains markets for protective devices like face masks or medical equipment like ventilators are swept empty. In this difficult situation more and more companies are turning their attention to 3D printing - also called additive manufacturing. Based on our analysis, we have identified three action areas for 3D printing that are critical to support the fight against the pandemic.

Analysis by Dr. Jakob Heinen and Prof. Dr. Kai Hoberg

While the use of 3D printing has significantly increased in recent years, most applications focus on prototyping, light-weight aircraft components and customized medical devices. With its strengths around production flexibility (free of tooling), local production and instant part availability, numerous creative solutions are now being deployed to support hospitals and other medical institutions with products that are now needed most. For example, we currently see many use of 3D-printing for critical items such as face masks, valves or test kit swabs.There are numerous small and large initiatives underway ranging from start-ups like Fab Labs to large multinationals like Mercedes Benz, Ford, or Siemens.

Leverage available hardware

More than hundred thousand high quality, professional 3D printers are estimated to be installed around the globe. Providing direct access to these capacities is key to crowdsource the available printers close to the locations where they are most immediately needed. For example, 3D printing service provider Prusa Research is already leveraging their available capacity and has produced more than 12,000 face shields. Similarly, HP and Carbon are proving printing capacity to all hospitals with urgent needs. The German Aerospace Center DLR is retrofitting its 3D printers and has successfully completed tests to print open-source templates of protective equipment with previously medically approved materials. While parts produced with 3D printing may not always provide the same durability and reliability as original parts, it can bridge shortages for days or weeks.

Provide support for creating digital designs 

The flexibility of 3D printing is seen as one of the greatest assets of the technology. Yet, without the digital design and verified printing specifications created by engineers and designers, the potential of 3D printing is limited. For example, Italian technology firm Isinnova approached sports retailer Decathlon to provide CAD drawings of a snorkelling mask and transformed it into fully functional facemasks for ventilators. Furthermore, Siemens takes benefit of their established Additive Manufacturing Network and responds to design requests with their in-house experts for digital design and 3D printing engineering. The leading design software provider Autodesk currently provides free access to cloud-based collaboration products around 3D-printing. By providing access to this software, the 3D-printing community benefits from the potential to co-create and exchange their designs.

Orchestrate exchange of designs and production capacity 

As the pandemic is spreading across the globe, we see similar needs emerging in different countries and regions. Providing a platform to orchestrate and enable exchanges for designs to the different actors is key to leverage the value of the multitude of ideas. While operators, regardless of private or professional, should make design files available open-source to be ultimately adjusted according to the specific needs of hospitals and doctors. Companies owning IP on critical components might need to make decisions that are ultimately live-saving. Further, transparency on available printer types and capacities, production materials and utilizations needs to be created using online platforms. 

Outlook

We are already seeing the many examples of companies and industry organizations starting great 3D-printing initiatives. 3D-printer manufacturer Ultimaker has set up a global map of companies operating their machines. The international 3D printing network Mobility Goes Additive is in direct contact with the European Commission to coordinate commitment from more than 250 companies providing technology and service support. The startup 3YOURMIND has created a production and distribution platform to provide order management and digital inventory of relevant items.

We are positive that there is more to these initiatives if we are moving to a united global response by

  • creating a transparent exchange of requests, available designs, and 3D printing capacity,
  • validating and certifying 3D designs and printing specification in collaboration with stakeholders including health authorities, medical users, printing manufacturers, and material providers, and
  • addressing not yet standardized agreements of handling intellectual property rights.

It is a unique opportunity for the 3D printing community to demonstrate the strength of flexible manufacturing, the innovation potential of creative maker initiatives, and the speed to transform ideas and designs into physical products.

    More information:

    Corona Crisis: Analyses & Comments
    This news is part of the Corona series of analyses and comments with KLU researchers regarding different aspects of the effects of the ongoing coronacrisis on our daily lifes, the economy, our way we work and more. Find all analyses and comments.