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3D printing finally found its market, and all it took was a pandemic

When COVID-19 disrupted supply chains, 3D printing stepped in to fill the gap. Will it stick around once the dust has settled?

Masks

An example of an FFP3 mask developed by research institute CIIRC CVUT and printed with HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D-printing technology.

Photo: Courtesy of HP

When the spread of COVID-19 decimated supply chains around the world, countries scrambled for important medical supplies — face masks, swabs, ventilators, drugs — but found few places to source them. In response, a global groundswell of companies and hobbyist makers rushed to fill the gap any way they could. For many, that meant 3D printing. Fast-forward six weeks, and tens of thousands of parts have been printed, helping to save lives and protect frontline workers.

3D printing has long been hyped as the harbinger of an industrial revolution. With a small machine and a bit of patience, anyone would be able print anything from the comfort of a couch. The technology carries some benefits over traditional manufacturing techniques: Prototyping is quicker, customizing is easier, and machines can be set up almost anywhere, meaning you can produce a lot closer to where the products need to go. But reality has set in as well: 3D printing is slow, expensive and only really works well for a few materials.

The pandemic has illuminated these opportunities and obstacles, showing businesses that there's value in building the kinds of distributed supply chains that 3D printing promises — but also that what works for some products won't apply to others. When the dust settles, the question will be whether the technology gets relegated back to the outer fringes of trade shows or becomes a more integral part of the way the world makes things.

"Certainly, supply chains broke in the midst of all this, and 3D printing is now one of the solutions for those gaps," Michael Shanler, an analyst at Gartner, told Protocol. "Unfortunately we were waiting for an event like this for that to be proven."

What's happening right now

Some of the largest 3D-printing companies have stepped up to help plug gaps that coronavirus opened in the supply chain, especially for protective equipment for health care workers. HP spun up a COVID-19 task force, mobilizing a global effort to design and manufacture products that could be printed on its industrial-size machines. The team, led by Fabio Annunziata, HP's 3D printing strategic alliances head, brought together hundreds of employees across the company in a few days to start sourcing designs and working with customers, as well as HP's own resources, to print parts.

HP has printed and shipped over 50,000 items. With its partners and clients, that number jumps to 1.5 million 3D-printed parts for ventilators, CPAP respirators, face shields, masks and other devices. The company put all of the vetted designs on its website for anyone to download and print.

Companies like SmileDirectClub, which produces 3D-printed invisible braces, used their printers to ship over 35,000 face shields in a matter of weeks. Avid, a product development company, came up with its own design for a face shield, and founder Doug Collins told Protocol the design is now up on HP's site. Six weeks ago, Collins pulled everyone on his team off customer projects to come up with a simple design that would cover the top of doctors' heads to prevent infection when they lean in to inspect a patient. They sketched up the design, made prints to perfect it, and started working with HP to release it. Like many other projects around the world, it can now be found in the U.S. National Institutes for Health's growing repository of 3D-printing files for COVID-19.

Other groups, such as the My Mask Movement, backed by Stanley Black & Decker, leaped into action to make use of 3D printing's ability to personalize products without having to retool any machinery. The nonprofit built an app that uses the depth-sensing cameras in newer iPhones to scan a person's face and build a 3D model that fits them perfectly. The mask design has been approved for clinical use by the NIH. Project leader Jesse Chang told Protocol that the precision of the industrial printers used to produce these masks was "completely unfathomable" five years ago. For doctors on the front lines, that level of accuracy could make the difference between contracting the virus and blocking it. "Getting down to that level of precision isn't just nice, it's necessary," Chang said.

What companies have learned

HP can see where it's designs are being printed across the world. Although Annunziata's task force ramped up when Italy and Spain began to get ravaged by the virus, the majority of the printing has since shifted to the U.S., the current epicenter of the pandemic. The company is now focusing on trying to fill the latest hole in the supply chain: nasal swabs, a key tool in the nasopharyngeal COVID-19 tests. One of the benefits of 3D printing is that an object made of one material can have multiple physical properties, Annunziata said. The swabs HP has developed, made entirely of plastic, are rigid at the end the health care worker holds, and pliable at the end that has to go into a patient's nose.

3D printed swabs HP's 3D printed nasopharyngeal swabs, all made of one material.Photo: Courtesy of HP

Annunziata highlighted the speed that 3D printing afforded members of his team, explaining that they can retool manufacturing capacity in a matter of hours so they aren't "hostage to the traditional supply chain." HP has a supply of the powder it uses to print products and is working with European governments to ensure it can continue to meet demand. Governments around the world, including Spain and the U.S., Annunziata added, have lowered regulatory hurdles to ensure products can get reviewed and approved for medical use as quickly as possible. But given the repetitive precision that 3D printing allows, the products can still be high quality. Clara Remacha Corbalán, who works in medical market development for HP, said one of the company's face mask designs was awarded a CE mark, meaning it hit safety standards and can be sold in the E.U. even after the pandemic subsides. "I do hope that it's going to be a tipping point for this industry," Annunziata said.

Chang said his team realized how quickly the organization had to move, primarily because there were no other options for many frontline workers, no slack capacity in existing supply chains. "The reason why we need to exist is because there's just not enough masks out there," Chang said. "There are no magical factories out there."

It's not a panacea

For some in the 3D-printing industry, though, the technology can only solve some manufacturing hurdles. Stratasys, one of the oldest 3D-printing companies, has been using its resources to deliver face shields, splitters for ventilators and other ventilator parts. But after iterating and settling on a design, manufacturing at scale is still an issue. Scott Drikakis, health care segment leader at Stratasys, said that one of the company's hobbyist-level MakerBot printers can make one visor for a face shield in about two hours, while one of its industrial-size Fortus machines can produce about 40 in five to six hours. With nasal swabs, it's different: A large printer can make around 1,500 in about six hours. The smaller the project, the more useful a single printer can be, but that hints at a flaw in 3D printing as a manufacturing method.

Once Stratasys validated its design for face shields, Drikakis said, it actually bought equipment to produce them at scale with injection molding, rather than 3D printers. "In the first three days, we had over 300,000 requests for face shields, and we said there's no way 3D printing is going to solve this, but it could be a bridge while we ordered the tooling," he said.

"It's a lot easier for a government to organize truckloads or plane loads of equipment and materials to get shipped around the world than setting up and scaling a 3D-printing operation," Gartner's Shanler said.

On the other hand, 3D printing can provide millions of nasal swabs each week, which could help ensure the U.S. has the testing capacity to consider opening the country back up. "The government said that there was this supply gap, and the 3D-printing industry has been able to meet that demand," Drikakis said. "And you're not talking about tens or hundreds; we're talking millions."

What might stick around

Unless 3D-printing technologies continue to progress to the point where they can compete with traditional manufacturing techniques on price, it seems unlikely they will usurp the status quo once supply chains are reestablished. Still, 3D printing could play a greater role in the manufacturing ecosystem moving forward, experts agree.

Personalizing products is a difficult task for traditional manufacturing, but for smaller-batch, higher-value items — like medical equipment — 3D printing could make a lot of sense even after the pandemic recedes. "The vast majority of doctors are focused on their work, and I'm not so sure they knew how much 3D printing could be unleashed into their industry," said Stanley Liu, a professor at Stanford University and a head and neck surgeon at the university's medical center, who has been working on the My Mask Movement. Liu said he now uses 3D printing to help plan surgeries, but sees many opportunities for personalization of equipment to better fit people wearing it. "All of us have been wearing masks that don't fit — this sort of slipped everybody's mind until now," he said.

And whether there's a second wave of COVID-19, or another pandemic takes hold of the world in the future, greater investment in 3D printing can help plug the gaps if supply chains break down again. "The technology's proven," Shanler said. "It's hitting that little spot for helping meet some surge capacity and doing on-demand print behaviors."


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"Historically, I think 3D printing has kind of been niched into engineering departments," Stratasys' Drikakis said. "Now — because there's been an increase in awareness — people are going to be in a position to say, 'How can we be more prepared for when this happens again?'"

3D printing and other automated forms of production could also figure in the debate over offshoring, helping companies make products in the U.S. in our new, more socially distant future. Chang refers to this idea as "Digitally 'Made in America.'" The country is facing the specter of the worst recession in generations, and supply chains in China are still scaling back up, so any ability to efficiently produce closer to demand will be valuable, Chang argues. "This is about freedom," he said, "and creating options."

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