3D printing could be part of the solution to filling in the gaps for medical supplies during the COVID-19 national emergency response. Large companies, such as HP and Ford, are using their 3D printers to create supplies needed during this time, including ventilator parts, masks, and nasal test swabs. Many university research labs are doing the same to increase the production of COVID-19 test kits. Some homemakers are also using 3D printing to make masks for personal use as well as donations to frontline workers.
While 3D printing is a growing industry that could benefit the current national emergency, there are loopholes that need to be worked out. For example, there is a lack of regulation from the FDA when using these supplies in medical facilities. There are also issues surrounding the supply chain and getting materials. For these reasons, the public might be better off using 3D printing in the next national emergency and not this one. According to 3D printing expert and CEO/founder of the product development and investment company Xponential Works Avi Reichental, his company is working around the clock to make essential medical supplies as quickly as possible.
Reichental stated that his company is focusing on making personal protective gear, including the 3D knitting of N-95 mask equivalents. The company is also creating nasal test swabs. He stated that the existing supply chains are not able to gear up so quickly yet. However, with 3D printing, his company can digitally teleport parts. The company takes these designs that are sourced to the crowd and replicates them throughout the world within days. Some of the barriers that the company faces include finding appropriate fabric for the masks. Reichental stated that they are extending the availability and sourcing of raw materials. The company is learning that the raw materials supply chain is stressed. Companies need to rethink FDA compliance because they will have to become more process-specific instead of focusing on each individual device.
3D Printing Materials Are Tricky To Regulate
3D printing requires a distributed model, and regulating medical devices may change the model that companies have to work with, stated Reichental. His company uses a variety of materials, including thermoplastics. These are already approved and regulated by the FDA. Other materials include photo polymers (also FDA regulated and approved). However, Reichental stated that the 3D printing industry does not know who is converting the materials into parts or where they are doing this. They also do not know what process they are using or whether they are working in a regulated, FDA-approved facility with either Class I or Class II registration.
Reichental stated that distributing manufacturing is hard. He said that over 72 hours are needed to oversee the process and get both high school students and professional companies all over the world on board with production. He stated that 3D printing companies need a different type of regulatory process that doesn’t just focus on the inputs and outputs. Medical equipment might not be certifiable because of how it was created. For this reason, it’s hard for finished products to become FDA compliant. Reichental stated that this is an opportunity to better regulate these kinds of processes for future use. He thinks that 3D printers could be used in emergency preparedness stockpiles in the future if we regulate these processes.
Although 3D printing is capable of helping print PPE for frontline workers, Reichental does not believe it will be enough to make a big dent due to certification problems. He thinks that we are laying the groundwork for future work when 3D printing can be a bigger part of the next national emergency.
How To Practice 3D Printing From Home
If you are interested in becoming a 3D printer owner, then there are guides you can look at to help kickstart the process. For example, CNET’s Dan Ackerman wrote a manual after having two printers delivered to his home. He used them to make plastic hooks to help improve the fit of masks. He also used his printers to make face shields, visors, and small tools that you can use to open doors, utilize your smartphone, and press buttons on public number pads without using your fingers. His manual includes a list of resources and places to donate your printed pieces to.
You can check it out here.
Slate published a story about how to work around the problems associated with making hospital-approved PPE with your at home 3D printer. The article recommends the best practices and how you can use your printer to make gear for nursing homes, elderly neighbors, and grocery store workers.
Possible At-Home Opportunities
There are also some exciting at-home products that are currently being tested. LabCorps has created the Pixel (not to be confused with the Google product), which could be one of the first FDA-approved at home-testing kits. TechCrunch is a lab and diagnostics company with 40 years of experience. They stated that they are working on the tests, and the first emergency authorization for an at-home test should be ready by the end of April.
According to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, The United States Congress is not going to allow remote voting. However, other reports have indicated that this may change and voters may be able to do so from home afterall. There is some controversy over these decisions, as some political members believe that people should continue to vote the way they have for 200 years.
Additionally, the United Kingdom’s Parliament voted to begin governing, meeting, and voting virtually. The country had been doing these things in person for nearly 700 years, so there is a big change to be expected all over the world as we navigate through the current pandemic.