3D-Printing in the Fight against the Coronavirus

3d printing

The Coronavirus keeps the whole world in stasis, and almost everybody is looking for solutions to the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical aids in hospitals, which are becoming increasingly scarce. We looked at why the printing industry could become one of the countless hidden heroes of the crisis, thanks to the possibilities 3D printing offers.

The small town Chiari in Lombardy, Italy, is one of the most affected areas by the coronavirus outbreak, and hospitals in this area suffer from shortages of beds as well as medical equipment. Due to the high demand, their regular supplier could not supply the urgently needed valves for the ventilators.

“We’re Trying to Save Lives” (CEO of Isinnova)

This is why the Italian journalist Nunzia Vallini contacted the 3D printing community in the region and asked for help. It was the Italian additive manufacturing start-up Isinnova who was among those volunteering for reconstructing the valves. Within six hours, the managed to build a prototype with the help of a filament extrusion system. But nevertheless, there were some challenges as the CEO of Isinnova, Christian Fracassi, explains: “The valves have skinny holes and tubes, smaller than 0,8mm – it’s not easy to print the pieces.” Furthermore, it’s essential not to contaminate the product and produce it clinically. “We haven’t slept for two days”, he said, “We’re trying to save lives.”
The first batch could help ten patients at the hospital, and with the help of another local 3D printing company Lonati, they printed 100 more.

Despite the voluntary help and although they had no intention of selling it, Isinnova was suddenly faced with accusations so that Fracassi pointed out that their focus is not on profit, but on helping people at risk.

But Isinnova are not the only ones using their resources in the fight against COVID-19 right now. Also universities, tech firms, and other 3D printers are responding to the shortage of personal protective equipment by supporting with its production. A significant advantage of 3D-printed kits is their production costs. The materials required are relatively cheap to produce, and it can be produced in a matter of hours.

Dr. Pashneh-Tala, part of the team iForge at the University of Sheffield, exemplified that they made 600 face shields for healthcare workers using a combination of 3D-printed frames. They sent them to local general practices, social workers, and paramedics. He ensured that they put the shields through a cleaning process designed to deactivate COVID-19 in specific. “It’s for the user to determine if that is suitable. Healthcare providers so far have been happy”, he said.

Is 3D Printing the Solution to the Current PPE shortage?

But, of course, 3D printing is not a panacea in the current crisis, and there are some concerns and things to consider when 3D printing medical equipment. First of all, as 3D-printed protective kits are relatively new on the market and there is not much experience with their handling, official guidance for healthcare workers about how to use them does not yet exist. Additionally, the MHRA points out that probably not all 3D-printed products like for example face-masks are suitable for medical use.

After all, 3D printers and the used materials vary in price, quality, and suitability for different projects. While there are more and more templates for creating PPE kits coming up in the 3D printer community, there is no label that meets European safety standards yet, which is why they can only be donated. But the rapid course of the corona crisis makes it necessary to react faster in the most different situations, so that this will hopefully change in the foreseeable future.