Could 3D-printing be the answer to coronavirus-induced supply shortages?

Edited By: Bharat Sharma WION Web Team
New Delhi, India Published: Mar 20, 2020, 06.17 PM(IST)

3D printing in action Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

The paraphernalia in question involves ventilator valves, breathing filters, and face mask clasps

3D printers could end the woes of supply shortage induced by the novel coronavirus COVID-19, as companies like HP have stepped up efforts to create life-saving medical tools using the technology.

Hewlett-Packard (HP), and other companies like the teeth straightener vendor SmileDirectClub are looking for ways to employ their preexisting 3D-printing technology to build medical supplies that are already running short across the world, as most countries have halted trade and are exercising self-protectionism in the face of the pandemic.

Reported first by CNET, HP is allegedly looking at "entirely new parts such as plastic door handle adaptors which enable easy elbow opening to prevent further spread of the virus."

Also read: Coronavirus pandemic: NASA suspends work on Moon rocket

The paraphernalia in question involves ventilator valves, breathing filters, and face mask clasps.

"We will make available any HP proprietary design files for these parts so they can be produced anywhere in the world and are also helping end-customers bridge potential supply chain interruptions by expanding distributed print-on-demand capabilities," HP announced in a press release.

3D printing has been for long employed in the orthodontic industry to provide accuracy. SmileDirectClub is one of the largest 3D-printing manufacturers in the United States. The company has recently started donating plastic to medical supply companies and health organisations to quickly fill the supply gap in terms of medical equipment.

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Kinds of 3D printing machines | AFP
 

3D printers can easily build ventilators and face masks, however the safety imbued in this process remains in question.

Printing most of the equipment requires special tools, with no clarity on the effectiveness of the products created using this technology.

In the end of last year, the novel coronavirus was detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and hails from the same family of coronaviruses as SARS and MERS.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently labelled the outbreak as a pandemic. As part of the precautionary measures, people across the globe have been advised to stay indoors and to practice social distancing.

The pandemic has shut down major countries and industries around the world. Italy continues to be in complete lockdown mode, with over 300 deaths being reported daily. This may partly be due to the large number of senior citizens in the country. Additionally, schools, restaurants, and bars have been ordered shut across the globe. Sporting events have also been cancelled until the virus threat simmers down. The US state of California recently enforced a complete lockdown which places over 40 million people in self-isolation.

Also read: Eight out of ten people expected to contract COVID-19 in Spanish capital Madrid

With no clear picture in sight of how long the pandemic might last, people have been compelled to hoard for not weeks, but for months. 

In the face of supply shortages, people have been hoarding toilet paper, hand sanitiser, disinfecting wipes, and masks, which has, in turn created an endless cycle of shortages.

Leaders across the world have urged people not to stock on essential medical supplies as it could cause a problem for emergency responders who are most vulnerable to contracting the virus. 

As per data released by The Society of Critical Care Medicine, nearly one million patients in the United States will need ventilators at some point in the near future. However, the country currently has only 200,000 machines.

Recently, Elon Musk’s Tesla also offered to build ventilators for countries facing shortages.

Even though 3D printing started a way to design prototypes, it is now being used to make finished products. The benefit of the technology is the fact that it uses lighter plastic, and is a viable alternative to heavy metals.

Also read: Can the duration of COVID-19 treatment be minimised by using a combination of drugs?

However, 3D printing may not be the definitive answer to supply shortages, as many items like face masks use complicated material. Additionally, 3D printers are slow and take hours to print designs. But printing relatively simpler items like valves would be easier.

The primary drawback of 3D printing is that it is capable of mass-production, if compared to the factory model of bulk production.

But this is not the end! Open Source Ventilator, a Facebook group aims to build ventilators using material which are already available. The group currently has 300 members, ranging from engineers to doctors. They have been able to conjure a prototype which could be approved for use in Ireland as soon as next week.

(With inputs from agencies)

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