The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is slowly but surely affecting all aspects of daily life. For many countries, this means closed borders, social distancing, and the closure of places of work, worship, and recreation.
Parallel to the disturbance to public life, is the chaos wreaked on healthcare services by the increased number of patients admitted to overburdened hospitals. Often requiring a particular type of ventilator for life-support – Covid-19 is a respiratory virus – the sudden spike in demand for these machines has stretched supply chains and the hospitals using them to breaking point.
Here are the ways 3D printing and the ingenuity of those that use it could, and in some cases already have, assist during the Covid-19 crisis.
Prusa Research has added its clout to the pandemic fightback, designing and prototyping a 3D printable face shield for frontline medical workers to protect their faces against the coughs and sneezes of patients in their care.
The printable – currently early on in its development at release candidate 1 (RC1) – is detailed in a lengthy – but fascinating – blog post on the Prusa website.
Acknowledging the problems with 3D printing parts for sensitive medical equipment (which is not impossible – but best left to the most desperate of times), and the challenges of getting printed face masks to provide the necessary fit and seal, the Prusa team instead opted to contribute with a novel, 3D printable face shield.
Turned around in three days flat – including two verifications from the Czech Ministry of Health – the mask is available to download from the PrusaPrinters website. It is recommended to print the parts in PETG.
Uniquely placed to suddenly manufacture hundreds, if not thousands of the shield brackets and bands (a separate, laser-cut sheet of PET is also needed), the Prusa print farm – as of the time of the blog post’s publication – has a fifth of capacity working on the shields, producing 800 pieces daily. Scaled up to maximum capacity would yield 4,000 pieces daily, with headroom to grow given the company’s resources and ability to rapidly add more machines.
A separate, but vital note is also raised by the blog post – sterilization. The Covid-19 virus is thought to survive on plastic for up to 90 hours, meaning that it is all too easy for a printed part to become, and remain, contaminated. There are no officially verified ways of sterilizing 3D printed masks, shields, and other equipment, so it is best to err on the side of safety and treat them as one-time-use only.
Similarly, with such 3D printed emergency supplies contemplated as a short-term solution against shortages, for all the willing makers and businesses around the globe eager to help, actually producing the parts in a responsible and sterile manner matters. Good intentions alone won’t stop a contaminated printed mask or shield from potentially worsening a severely sick patient should they come into contact.
The blog post advises those producing parts they intend to donate be checked by a professional (a professional what exactly is not specified, but we would take this to mean healthcare professional you are in contact with over your contribution.)
Projects around the world that are working on proven designs such as the face shield are encouraged to contact the company via email, the intent being to share printable designs on the PrusaPrinters model repository.
Manufacturers are joining the efforts to address potential supply problems during the Covid-19 pandemic. Today saw a number of releases from 3D printer manufacturers offering up their expertise, networks, and print farms in the hope they can be of assistance.
Barcelona’s BCN3D has pledged its 63-printer strong print farm for scientifically-validated projects. Those with ideas or plans in need are invited to contact the company via email.
Likewise, California’s Airwolf3D is doing the same, committing its facilities and technical expertise to assist in the production of respirator valves and medical components. Again, requests for assistance should be directed via email.
A similar effort has come forth from Massachusetts-based Formlabs, which has set up a support network to connect projects in need of expertise and means of production, with its extensive community. Both willing participants and projects seeking help can make their requests using the same online form. Where appropriate, the company will then make the connections between the projects and possible support.
A hospital in Brescia, Italy, one of the worst-afflicted regions in Europe, has had to operate over-capacity with some 250 patients in intensive care. With each case requiring long hours of assisted breathing using a ventilator, a shortage of oxygen valves quickly became a problem.
Upon discovering the issue, Nunzia Vallini, Italian journalist and director of magazine Giornale di Brescia, connected the hospital with Isinnova, a business research and development firm that quickly made it to the hospital to inspect the valve.
Modeling the part onsite, a rough replacement was produced and in testing within 24 hours. Following initial success, some 70 more were produced with the assistance of engineers at Brescia-based industrial manufacturer, the Lonati Group.
The valves, batch produced using selective laser sintering technology, are said to be in use already, aiding the intensive care of patients fighting the virus.
A “quick and dirty” fix in a time of crisis, it demonstrates the radical agility 3D printing technology can bring to a supply chain. It’s perhaps too early to say whether stories such as Brescia will be fringe cases, or if flashpoints of the virus will make this a regular thing.
In response to the Brescia story, a Google Sheet has been set up for makers the world over to provide basic details about their availability and capability to make such devices as the oxygen valve.
As the Covid-19 crisis deepens, such a resource could serve as a shortcut for under-pressure medical institutions in dire need of small-scale manufacturing help.
Those interested in signing up can do so via the submission form. Take note that this is a publicly available document. Your email address, name, and general location will be there for all to see, so make sure you are comfortable with this information becoming public knowledge.
Further than committing printing time and materials, several open-source projects have emerged in recent days with the singular goal of developing ventilators that can be produced cheaply and locally.
Several posts covering the concept of an open-source ventilator have given wind to the idea that a crowdsourced response, channeling the kind of energy typically reserved for hackathons, could be instrumental in helping areas stricken by a spike of Covid-19 cases.
Thanks to Brent Jackson of the OpenRespirator Project, who has compiled a list in his GitHub repo, we currently know of the OpenRespirator Project, Project Open Air, and the Open Lung Low Resource Ambu-Bag Ventilator.
An unnamed safety equipment manufacturer in Jinhua, China, is tackling the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage head-on, tasking its farm of 200 Flashforge Guider 2 3D printers to produce safety goggles for frontline medical staff.
Tasking its R&D team to develop a 3D printable, mass-producible product, the company managed to finalize the goggles in a little under two weeks, a design that will result in the ability to tool up to print some 2,000 goggles daily. According to the release on Business Wire, to date, some 5,000 3D printed googles have already been donated to hospitals.
Belgian 3D printing bureau Materialise quickly put its inhouse design talent to use during the Covid-19 crisis, designing a bolt-on door hack to make simple lever door handles hands-free.
A smart move that eliminates contact with a common transmission object at home, in public and even hospitals, the design simplifies the elbow-action we’ve all near perfected in recent weeks.
Available to download for free, the two-part print requires two long and two short screws, plus four nuts to secure them all in place. Don’t forget to print one for each side of the door.
Of course, for some of these 3D printed parts used in medical devices, there’s the question of whether they’re as safe as their non-3D printed, manufacturer-approved counterparts and whether there could be any potential legal implications for jerry-rigging these life-saving devices.
Despite the success of cases like the one in Brescia, Italy and the Google sheet organizing makers’ time and resources to help, the reality is these printed parts are hugely untested. They likely could be outside of the tolerances for the machines they are paired with and will not be up to the clinical standard of production. That people’s lives hinge on the effectiveness of this printed part highlights how desperate the situation is for the communities at the heart of the pandemic.
And the legal complications of unofficially mass-producing patented parts, and who is liable should one of these printed parts fail in the care of an immunocompromised patient, are also worth giving some thought to.
Not to mention the danger of contamination with 3D printed parts – the porosity of a printed part, in addition to the Covid-19 virus being able to survive on plastic for days – make current solutions as PPE at best, only good for one-time use. Gadgets and gizmos to make hands-free operation in daily life are less risky, but for the production of protective equipment for medical workers caution is advised, as is the oversight of professionals in the making and handling of such pieces.
Regardless, the desperate situations of cities caught in the midst of this crisis have inspired makers around the world to commit their time and machines to the cause. If you find yourself in the situation to help, try to do so responsibly.
Update 23/03/2020: Copper3D’s website appears to be down, and there has been significant noise online criticizing the company’s mask, plan, and, well, generally poking holes in a lot of what the company has claimed of its mask. Dubious or not, we reported on it in this article, taking the apparent effort to help worldwide efforts to combat Covid-19 at face value, noting the point from Copper3D’s announcement was for others to iterate and improve the design. What we initially wrote remains below, though we have relegated its position in this article to the bottom as something of a footnote. Cautionary tale. However you want to view it. The short of it; don’t print masks. At least, not ones that haven’t been verified or endorsed by the appropriate regulatory or medical professionals.
Copper 3D, a Chile/US specialist manufacturer that produces antibacterial materials, has launched what it calls NanoHack, and with it, the catchy hashtag #HackThePandemic. The NanoHack is a 3D printable face mask that could serve as an alternative to the N95 masks that are said to be in short supply.
A fast, flat print that maximizes the idea of distributed manufacturing, the mask can be printed locally and shipped flat. Thermoformed during assembly to fit the individual, the NanoHack mask looks to create a good seal around the face and provide a long-lasting alternative to disposable fabric masks that are in short supply.
It would appear that to be fully effective, the mask should be printed in Copper 3D’s PLACTIVE antimicrobial PLA filament. This certainly would shorten the risk of the plastic shell becoming contaminated. Antimicrobial material aside, there is a sealable recess that accepts makeshift filters such as cotton padding, proving at least some form of respiratory protection.
The file is freely available for all to download (ed note: link removed) and improve upon, with Copper 3D encouraging an “Open Source mindset” toward the project.
We’ll update this article with any other projects, solutions, and calls-to-action that emerge. If you know of any, sound off in the comments and we’ll fold them into the article where appropriate.
License: The text of "Coronavirus Crisis: 3D Printing Community Responds" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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