Since the outbreak of COVID-19, 3D printing has quickly emerged as a key technology, most notably through the ability to create life-saving equipment at speed.
In Northern Italy, Christian Fracassi, Founder of Isinnova, an Italian-based engineering startup, became one of the first companies to reverse-engineer and manufacture much needed valves for respirators after a supply chain shortage left hospitals short of equipment.
Within 24 hours Isinnova was able to test their first prototype, and within 48 hours they were able to supply the hospital with the 100 missing valve pieces.
Isinnova is one of many companies that showcase how the 3D printing community is coming together to help those in need during the pandemic.
A number of printing firms have also demonstrated their willingness to combat medical device shortages, such as the Barcelona-based BCN3D who have offered to utilise their ‘print farm’, if the request is scientifically validated.
This willingness has also included building online communities that, through gathering information and resources, provides a directory of companies with 3D printing capabilities offering their services. This Google Sheet is one example that was made public to develop an international list of 3D printing services that can be re-purposed across the medical supply chain.
What does this mean in the United Kingdom?
Last week, the UK Government called for the manufacturing supply chain to switch its production to medical supplies. This included the Formula 1 consortium, the aerospace sector and leading car designers, many who use 3D printing in manufacturing and R&D efforts. This includes companies like Vauxhall and Airbus, whilst a number of digital manufacturing and 3D printing companies have also announced their willingness to help.
Whilst this help is certainly welcomed, it is important to recognize that the quality of 3D printing varies widely. It requires necessary and clear design files, and the end product is not always suitable for repetitive use. One way in which firms can combat this is through creating open source platforms to share and standardize designs. Online communities are quickly becoming a place to share these standards, but they still need to be medically viable. The Department of Health and Social Care have released information on minimally acceptable standards of ventilators should companies wish to help. Nonetheless, safe implementation, especially when producing medical supplies, may limit the scope and speed at which this technology can be deployed.
Is the future 3D printed?
The agility of 3D printing is clear. Speed, responsiveness, the ability to build low-cost solutions; what 3D printing has always advertised is what industries now need. As supply chains become increasingly limited by the effects of COVID-19, 3D printing can offer a viable, long-term or short-term solution for some products and components beyond the medical supply chain. This, in turn, will re-imagine the scope of 3D printing in supply chains after Covid-19.
Until then, it is promising to see how the tech community continues to find solutions to help at this time. If your business could help provide ventilator components, look at the BEIS call to action here.
Written by Laura Foster, techUK Programme Manager.