The global Additive Manufacturing community responds to coronavirus

March 27, 2020

Coronavirus patients under observation in an Iranian hospital (Photo courtesy Mohsen Atayi)

The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) is having a major impact on the global manufacturing industry, with both supply chains and markets being heavily affected. As the number of patients requiring hospital treatment dramatically increases on a global scale, healthcare providers are seeing critical shortages in necessary equipment such as ventilators, and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and shields. Testing kits are also in high demand, as are other diagnostic tools.

Reporting of these shortages has been met with a number of governmental calls to the manufacturing community to assist in the production of medical components, and the mobilisation of manufacturing resources globally, from major manufacturing service providers to individuals in the ‘maker movement’, ranging from fully-qualified engineers to high school students.

A number of Additive Manufacturing initiatives and consortiums have been formed to fast-track development and help meet demand. Meanwhile, business networking sites like LinkedIn have become a hub for the group sourcing of solutions and signal boosting of local and international calls for assistance.

This report will attempt to give an overview of just some of the current global calls to action, initiatives and activities in the global AM community, not just in the metal Additive Manufacturing sphere but including those polymer technologies which are already meeting demand, and in doing so proving the case for Additive Manufacturing as a whole as a localised rapid development and manufacturing concept.

This is by no means an exhaustive summation of all AM activities being undertaken in response to COVID-19, which are numerous and rapidly evolving. The role of Additive Manufacturing is of course not limited to the production of components themselves, but also in the rapid production of prototypes, test rigs and mould tools. 

Calls to action and initiatives

A number of governmental organisations and associations have requested that the manufacturing community turn its resources toward the production of components to support the healthcare sector.

Among them, the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, recently approached CECIMO, the European Association of the Machine Tool Industries and related Manufacturing Technologies, to ask its membership to aid in the production of equipment that hospitals are lacking due to COVID-19. In turn, CECIMO last week issued a call to action to all AM companies, urging every company with the capability to do so to assist hospitals in Europe.

The UK government has issued a call for businesses to help produce ventilators, including businesses with rapid prototyping skills, as well as sending ventilator blueprints to some major manufacturers. Some of the UK’s biggest aerospace and car companies are now reported to have formed three ‘teams’ to produce basic ventilators to assist the National Health Service (NHS). According to Reuters, one of these consortia, led by Meggitt Plc, which builds oxygen systems for civil and military aerospace applications, includes major engineering companies Renishaw Plc, GKN and Thales SA.

America Makes, the USA’s national accelerator for Additive Manufacturing, part of the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM), reported this week that it is partnering with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help ensure the Additive Manufacturing industry can effectively and safely meet the needs of US healthcare workers working to combat coronavirus. (The FDA itself has continued to issue updated guidance on the production of critical components to combat and treat COVID-19.)

America Makes will reportedly connect the capabilities of the Additive Manufacturing industry with specific needs of healthcare providers via an online repository. This site will record necessary information from both the AM industry and healthcare providers, and eventually include a pathway for designs to be uploaded for review to ensure they meet medical standards, and downloaded for use in production.

Earlier this month, Mobility goes Additive (MgA), a German network focused on the acceleration of AM within transport, issued a call to its members in response to the European Commission’s call to the wider manufacturing industry. Within two days of issuing the call, the network reported that it had received offers of support, materials and capacity from over 190 companies in all industries, including automotive and sportswear.

In addition, MgA used its Medical goes Additive virtual group meeting on March 24 as a ‘pandemic task force’, opening the digital event up to non-members. The group stated that it is currently in contact with relevant suppliers in the medical technology sector to identify support needs, and is networking with higher-level pandemic task forces in order to be able to match supply and demand in a coordinated manner.

Non-profit Austrian technology platform Additive Manufacturing Austria has established a contact point to coordinate between supply bottlenecks and existing AM resources, offering access to the local resources and competencies of the association’s members.

Along similar lines, Siemens plc has opened its AM Network Platform free of charge to all companies requiring medical device design or manufacturing services, allowing the healthcare sector and its suppliers to reach designers and manufacturers worldwide for on-demand solutions.

Distributed manufacturing network 3DHubs has set up its own COVID-19 Manufacturing Fund, as a way to bring together engineers who have designed parts to assist in combating the virus, but lack funding, and those able to invest in bringing those parts to fruition. The aim of this initiative is to help manufacture critical parts for medical devices faster and on a global scale.

AM technology developer and manufacturer Formlabs recently launched its ‘Formlabs Support Network for COVID-19 Response’, connecting available manufacturers to projects in need of production. The company released a Google Form earlier this month to be filled in by volunteers with access to 3D printers willing to give their time and equipment to produce supplies required by the healthcare sector, as well as a form to be filled out by those working on COVID-19-related projects who required access to 3D printed parts, with the intention of connecting those two groups to produce adjustment straps for facial shields, respiratory mask adapters and swabs for testing kits.

AM media support

The Additive Manufacturing media is also providing valuable resources, both for the healthcare sector looking to understand and source 3D printing solutions and for companies and makers looking to team up to provide solutions.

Additive Manufacturing Magazine has published a regularly-updated map of AM part and tooling service providers, while the 3D Printing Media Network has established a forum to discuss solutions and is also maintaining a Realtime Global Map of healthcare institutions and the AM service providers ready to help them, helping to connect resources.

Production efforts

A large number of AM service providers have been offering their manufacturing capacity to the production of equipment required by the healthcare sector.

Desktop Metal has offered its services for the production of small, complex parts. The company will provide its Binder Jet and/or FFF AM or engineering services free of charge for the production of parts smaller than 2 x 2 x 2 cm in 17-4 stainless steel which serve an urgent need in the healthcare sector. The company stated, “The global impact of this novel coronavirus has had a tremendous impact on the medical community and has overwhelmed their already exhausted supply chain. We want to do all that we can to support these professionals in their efforts.”

Debinding and sintering expert DSH Technologies is offering its debind and sinter services at no charge to companies working to produce metal additively manufactured parts in response to the coronavirus crisis. Parts shipped to the company under this initiative will be processed as a priority at no charge. DSH Technologies states that it will also offer support in terms of design challenges or part review prior to building.

The most commonly-produced components to-date are of course polymer AM components, and whilst these are beyond the normal scope of Metal AM magazine, their impact and success warrants coverage as they effectively demonstrate the speed and technological capability of the AM industry as a whole to deliver solutions in the event of supply chain disruption and emergencies.

The most prolific products being produced are plastic headbands to which face shields, which prevent the wearer from being exposed to saliva or other bodily fluids when a patient coughs, can be attached. These products require little to no validation for use in hospitals and can be manufactured on demand and delivered quickly to where they are needed, or even manufactured on-site in hospital 3D printing facilities, as is the case within a New Orleans, USA, hospital system currently printing its own equipment and verifying it in-house.

A very large number of 3D printing and AM companies have committed to producing these parts, among them 3D Systems, Markforged, Stratasys, Xometry, BCN3D, Airwolf 3D, HP Inc. and Prusa Research. Note that face shields should not be confused with hospital-grade or N65 face masks, which require medical validation.

One of the most highly publicised use cases for polymer 3D printing during the coronavirus pandemic is the development of a replacement venturi ventilator valve by Italian start-up Isinnova, thought to have saved the lives of ten COVID-19 patients in Chiari hospital in Brescia. Without access to the blueprint for the original valve, and with the original manufacturer unable to provide the devices on time, Issinova reverse engineered the valve to design a replacement, which was produced in medical grade nylon on a Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) machine on the hospital premises.

Other companies offering the production of valves and ventilator parts include Protolabs, which has pledged 100,000 ventilator parts and reports that it is “churning out as many 3D printed parts as possible for initial prototypes,” according to Sian Caliburn, Core Team Account Manager. Roboze stated that it is running twenty-five machines, offering free support, and has so far produced more than one hundred valves for urgent use.

In Spain, the first 3D printed respirator, designed to help patients breathe for short periods, has been developed and approved by medical experts. The respirator was developed by Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB), HP, Leitat, SEAT, Consorci Sanitari de Terrassa (CST) and the Parc Taulí Hospital in Sabadell, and once production is industrialised, it is expected that between 50 and 100 units could be produced a day.

HP is also manufacturing field ventilator valves and hospital-grade face masks, currently undergoing testing and validation. The company has also delivered 1,000 3D printed parts not requiring validation to hospitals to date, such as face mask clasps, and has made available a number of STL files for public use.

Another recent development aimed at countering the ventilator shortage in hospitals has been the development of 3D printed ‘splitters’ that allow more than one patient to access a single ventilator. One such product was designed by Leitat and CZFB in parallel with the respirator mentioned earlier; a first production run of 200 of these devices is now complete, with a further 1,000 units expected to be produced by next week. US not-for profit Prisma Health has also developed a 3D printed splitter device, the Prisma Health VESper, a three-way connector that expands use of one ventilator to treat up to four patients simultaneously. This device has already received FDA approval.

Other successful applications in tackling the spread of coronavirus include hands-free door openers, which help prevent the spread of coronavirus by minimising skin-to-surface contact with door handles. Materialise has released the STL files for these devices, enabling them to be produced by 3D printing companies and makers globally. In addition, Materialise’s Design and Engineering team has developed a 3D printed shopping cart handle which aims to reduce coronavirus spread by making it possible for the user to push the cart using their forearms.

3D Systems is exploring the production of ventilator components, and is currently awaiting engagement with medical device manufacturers for feasibility and testing. The company is also exploring the production of PPE surgical masks, pending clinical evaluation and feedback.

In the latest issue of Metal AM magazine

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Extensive AM industry news coverage, as well as the following exclusive deep-dive articles:

  • Metal powders in Additive Manufacturing: An exploration of sustainable production, usage and recycling
  • Inside Wayland Additive: How innovation in electron beam PBF is opening new markets for AM
  • An end-to-end production case study: Leveraging data-driven machine learning and autonomous process control in AM
  • Consolidation, competition, and the cost of certification: Insight from New York’s AM Strategies 2024
  • Scandium’s impact on the Additive Manufacturing of aluminium alloys
  • AM for medical implants: An analysis of the impact of powder reuse in Powder Bed Fusion

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