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Leon Kaye headshot

The 3D Printing Brigade Leading the Fight Vs. COVID-19

3D printing has become a critical tool in the fight against the novel coronavirus as big companies and solo shops do what they can to supply healthcare workers.
By Leon Kaye
3D Printing

Over the past few weeks, 3D printing has become a critical tool in the fight against the novel coronavirus. By now, we all know how this pandemic is close to overwhelming the healthcare system across the U.S. and the globe, as everything from N95 masks to ventilators are in dangerously short supply. But heroic efforts are also underway: Citizens sewing masks to help supply hospitals and clinics, while garment companies are retooling their factories to make the personal protective equipment (PPE) necessary to safeguard the healthcare professionals who are on the front lines.

But as stories emerge of critical equipment arriving in some U.S. states that do not work, such as ventilators, 3D printing has become another arsenal as individuals and companies large and small do what they can do to assist during this crisis. From face shields to ventilator valves to nasal swabs, volunteers with 3D printers are doing what they can to compensate as the federal government struggles to gather the resources hospitals desperately need.

3D printing efforts rise up, from Italy to Silicon Valley

The mobilization of 3D printing to take on the coronavirus outbreak first arose in Italy. Engineers at the startup Isinnova started printing valves for respirators when orders for such replacements couldn’t be shipped fast enough. Since then, other organizations worldwide have moved quickly to help healthcare workers treat those stricken by COVID-19.

In Silicon Valley, the nonprofit Maker Nexus has helped gather volunteers with 3D printers to make face shields for healthcare professionals to use as they treat the most seriously ill patients. As of last week, production of these much-needed face shields has reached between 500 and 1,000 daily. Similar efforts, such as this crowdfunding campaign in North Carolina, strive to raise funds and recruit volunteers to make these face shields readily available. On Facebook, the Open Source COVID-19 Medical Supplies Group is a resource for people who want to help and have 3D printers ready.

Moving beyond doorknobs

As we’ve all been reminded during the constant handwashing campaigns, doorknobs are among the most notorious hosts of viruses and bacteria. In Belgium, the 3D printing company Materialise now offers free files that users can download and in turn allow for the printing of door handles that require an “elbow bump” move rather than having to use our fingers.

Meanwhile, HP Inc. has launched a portal at which users can download various designs of equipment that healthcare workers need, including face shields, masks, wrist guards and modified door openers.

Small efforts worldwide help to confront this pandemic

NASCAR, yes, the organization that manages the auto racing circuit, says it has coopted the five 3D printers at its North Carolina research and development center to make face shields that it then distributes to hospitals across the Carolinas and Virginia.

Italy-based Iveco, owned by CNH Industrial group, has also mobilized 3D printers at two factories in Spain to manufacture face shields, masks and ventilator parts (a prototype is shown in the above photo).

And Down Under, Mat Bowtell has pivoted his charity to printing face shields for Australian healthcare workers. “With 3D printing, we’ve been able to go from making hands to making face shields in a matter of, well, days,” Bowtell said in an interview with the Guardian. “To completely revamp our line, that’s how agile this technology is and how flexible it is.”

As for the engineers at Italy’s Isinnova, their story has turned into a tale of how no good need goes unpunished. According to one medical trade publication, the company has been threatened with legal action from the manufacturer that makes the original ventilator valve part.

Image credit: Iveco/3BL Media

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye