HealthMay 27, 2020

Can 3D printing medical supplies help fill critical COVID-19 needs?

By: Megan D. Williams

With worldwide COVID-19 cases and supply shortages rapidly mounting, can 3D printing medical supplies help?

3D printing is practically old hat in healthcare. From casts and custom knee replacements to even an implanted human skull, the technology has been an emerging if low-profile player in a fast-changing field for years.

But now as the industry faces one of its greatest challenges in the form of a pandemic-induced medical supply shortage, the limits and efficacy of the flexible manufacturing technology are being tested, while some question whether 3D printing medical supplies is a viable solution at all.

Understanding COVID-19 shortages

Despite some consumer panic, there's been no real threat that the U.S. will run out of toilet paper. Medical supplies, though, are another story, though shortages are still difficult to estimate.

U.S. hospitals are already straining under the weight of a medical supply shortage, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reports, and we're still weeks away from seeing any measurable impact of the effects of social distancing. Ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) - including face shields, gloves, goggles, glasses, gowns and head and shoe covers that protect from disease transmission through droplet and contact routes - have led the headlines, and we're unsure of exactly how much we'll need. Worst-case estimates claim as many as one million ventilators, according to the New York Times. More hopeful outlooks put us at a comparatively paltry several hundred thousand.

As things stand, NEJM researchers estimate that we have between 60,000 and 160,000 ventilators in the country, depending on whether you count those with partial functionality. The root causes are various challenges in the global supply chain, one of the most pressing being that China was producing about half of the planet's face masks before the pandemic shut down exports.

One thing we do know is the impact these shortages have, particularly on providers. In Italy, one of the key reasons for high rates of infection and death among healthcare workers was a lack of access to PPE, according to the International Council of Nurses.


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3D Printing medical supplies to stop a shortage

One stopgap that's been proposed and applied has been using 3D printing - also known as additive manufacturing - to create supplies that are in shortage or printing their alternatives. We're seeing examples of this across the globe.

The European Commission has asked the European Association for Additive Manufacturing whether members can produce medical equipment for hospitals during the outbreak, including ventilators. A public Google Sheet has also been established to list 3D printing services in manufacturing components such as oxygen valves. HP has already delivered more than 1,000 3D-printed parts to local hospitals in response to the outbreak.

Still, the question of whether crowd-sourced medical devices are even a viable idea looms large. Medical devices can be incredibly complex, even for 3D printing, as Machine Design notes, and the consequences of unregulated manufacturing and reverse engineering are unknown. But there seems to be some hope. In Italy, an engineering firm specializing in product development and turning ideas into functional products used 3D printing to produce 100 respirator valves in just 24 hours, saving patient lives, according to 3D Printing Industry.

What we can learn from COVID-19

Already, we're seeing new promise emerging from the application of 3D printing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the Guardian reported that a Chinese company printed 15 isolation wards (initially created for use as holiday homes) in just one day.

A Czech company that boasts the largest 3D printing farm in the world has been producing protective face shields (used in addition to medical masks) and has been printing over 800 a day, already donating 10,000 to their national ministry of health, according to New Atlas. The cost? Less than $1 per unit without bulk discounts. At the same time, they're showing much slower rates in their plans to print respirators because of the challenges in sealing the filter, mask and attachment to the face.

This highlights one of the pervasive problems with 3D printing in healthcare. While some solutions such as elastic bandages are low-risk and pose little danger from shoddy (even if well-intentioned) manufacturing, the applications of 3D printing become much murkier when advancing further up the Food and Drug Administration's medical device-ranking system. Printing an enema kit is one thing. Creating cardiac devices is an entirely different venture.

As we continue to find new ways to address the seemingly endless challenges posed by the latest global pandemic, it's important to keep an open mind about emerging solutions while also figuring out how they need to be improved so they can be as effective in our current situation as possible.

Megan D. Williams