4 Things the COVID-19 Crisis Tells Us About 3D Printing

09 April 2020
3d printing face shields

[Image credit: Prusa Research]
The 3D printing industry is going through extraordinary times, as it provides emergency responses to help deal with the global crisis stemming from the Coronavirus pandemic. 
However, this crisis is not only revealing the ways in which 3D printing can help, but also the key things we are learning about the 3D printing industry. 

1. 3D printing can be used as a volume manufacturing technology 

One of the key things the ongoing crisis has proved about 3D printing is that it can indeed be used in volume manufacturing. 
As hospitals and businesses around the world struggle with supply chain disruption, 3D printing has become a valuable resource for the emergency production of parts in need. 
So far, the technology has been used to produce medical components, like ventilator valves, safety goggles and protective face shields, and industrial goods like spare parts and moulds. 
What is heartening about these applications is not only the collaborative spirit that drives the efforts, but also the volume of some of the parts being produced with 3D printing. 
For example, Formlabs is now using its more than 250 in-house 3D printers to produce up to 150,000 COVID-19 test swabs — devices that are used to collect samples for COVID-19 testing — per day. 

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3D-printed test swabs [Image credit: Formlabs]

This example shows 3D printing is not only suitable not for low-volume manufacturing. Technologies like Stereolithography and Powder Bed Fusion are able to produce thousands of 3D-printed parts in a relatively short time frame. 
It is yet another indicator of 3D printing’s transition into a manufacturing solution that will continue to prove its viability for more applications as the industry moves forward. 

2. Switching completely to AM production is not a panacea

While we’re excited about the opportunities that 3D printing offers the manufacturing sector, it’s worth noting that it isn’t a solution that will replace all other manufacturing technologies. 
Taking medical equipment as an example, it would be impossible to use the technology for all of the different kinds of medical equipment currently in demand. Some involve complex devices that require a combination of traditional technologies and expertise to be manufactured successfully. 
Furthermore, using 3D printing for certain medical applications raises concerns about biocompatibility and the ability to sterilise the parts. The process of sterilising parts involves high temperatures and pressures, which not many 3D printing materials can withstand.
3D printing materials for medical applications must also be developed for medical environments. That’s why, when developing 3D-printed products, it’s also critical to collaborate with healthcare officials to ensure that the materials and process used to produce the items are suitable for medical use.
With traditional supply chains facing disruption,, 3D printing can be a suitable stop-gap measure for some parts that are currently difficult to procure. This, however, doesn’t mean that 3D printing will replace traditional technologies used to manufacture those parts. 
That said, while traditional processes are still ideal for high-volume applications, it’s exciting to see 3D printing stepping up to take its place as a highly flexible, on-demand manufacturing solution. 

3. Standardisation and certification are significant challenges to adopting 3D printing

Another lesson we are learning is that a lack of standards makes it extremely difficult to adopt 3D printing, particularly in healthcare.
With so many companies and 3D printing enthusiasts around the world offering their support, there are still many challenges that need to be addressed.
How do we select the right material for the right product if there are few material guidelines? How can quality control and standard operating procedures be enforced in emergency situations? How can we accelerate certification processes?
These are just some of the questions that need to be answered if 3D printing is to be part of the solution.
So far, much effort has been made to deal with these challenges. For example, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and ASTM, an international standards organisation, offer free resources on the 3D printing of medical devices and products during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
Furthermore, the FDA, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and America Makes have formed a COVID-19 response public-private partnership to share knowledge and connect healthcare organisations with 3D printing service providers. They have also provided the NIH 3D Print Exchange, a collection of 3D model designs that have been reviewed for clinical use. 
While these efforts are very encouraging, if we want to introduce more 3D-printed products into intensive care units and hospitals and more broadly into other industrieswe need to fast-track the development of standards and certification procedures.  
Industry collaboration and partnerships have been powerful mechanisms in additive manufacturing, and standards development is no exception. 
Therefore, now is an opportunity to accelerate collaboration to develop necessary 3D printing standards. This will not only help in the efforts against the pandemic, but will also contribute to the growth of the industry. 

4. The use of 3D printing designs for medical products reveals IP challenges 

The challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have also highlighted issues around patent and IP law.
3D printing has a valuable role to play in the production of vital medical equipment. However, parties interested in 3D printing such medical products may not realise the various legal risks involved. 
While many 3D-printed products are patent-free, others are reproductions of already protected and mass-manufactured products that are in short supply.
So how do we tackle 3D printing IP protection, particularly during this crisis? 
For patent-holding companies, one way to find a balance between protecting IP and providing support is by granting temporary and/or purpose-limited licences solely for the purpose of supplying clearly defined products to fight the current crisis. Such licences should also clearly regulate product liability as well as what must be done with non-disposable products once the crisis is over.
When IP rights cover the finished product and don’t cover the design file, it’s crucial to define the terms of how the design can be used and shared. 
Ultimately, as the current situation demonstrates, owners of intellectual property and those involved in 3D printing must be aware of the way IP is created, protected and can be infringed.

Lessons learned 

The 3D printing industry is transforming rapidly, with much more to come in terms of its evolution. 
If the current crisis has shown us one thing about 3D printing, it’s this: today we have a much more realistic perspective on 3D printing technology than ever before. 
With 3D printing back in the media spotlight, this time it is not a question of consumer hype.  Today, 3D printing is becoming recognised in mainstream circles as a viable manufacturing technology. This will enable more organisations to reconsider their adoption of the technology and to make a truly profound impact on businesses and society alike. 


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