2020’s Key COVID-19 3D Printing Stories

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2020 has been a really tough year…I know this is a major understatement, but I can’t think of a more succinct way to put it. According to the World Health Organization today, there are now over 80 million confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, the cause of the COVID-19 illness, with more than 1.7 million confirmed deaths.

As offices, restaurants, schools, theaters, and more closed their doors, events around the world were postponed, cancelled, or switched to a new online format. Consumers snatched up face masks, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper. Millions of people switched to a work from home (WFH) environment for the first time, if they were lucky enough to keep their jobs At the same time, we all struggled to comply with a new idea called “social distancing” and many watched helplessly as supply chains fought to keep going. But through it all, 3D printing has been a shining beacon in the dark.

As Nexa3D CEO Avi Reichental put it in an interview, “The entire industry sprang into action in the early stages of the pandemic, manufacturing everything that the traditional supply chain was unable to provide because it was complex and broken.”

JCRMRG volunteers delivering face shields to hospitals. Image courtesy of JCRMRG.

We first began reporting on COVID-related 3D printing news shortly after the crisis was officially declared a pandemic in March, and have been working to bring you the latest all year. The 3D printing industry was built on the backs of innovative makers with a sharing, can-do attitude, and while there were some issues along the way, as many had to relearn the important phrase “first do no harm” and make sure what they were making was safe and by the books, I’d say that the overall response from the AM world has been a positive one. Read on to see what we thought were some of 2020’s most important COVID-related 3D printing stories!

PPE: FACE MASKS AND SHIELDS

A 3D printed face mask made by LMD Innovation using LUVOSINT TPU. Image courtesy of LEHVOSS Group.

We’ll start with the obvious: personal protective equipment, or PPE, which includes protective clothing, goggles, helmets, and other garments or equipment that are designed to protect the wearer’s body from injury or infection, such as face masks…so long as they’re made properly, of course. This summer, the United States Department of Commerce’s National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), granted $1.4 million to America Makes to use for making 3D printed PPE. German firm LMD Innovation GmbH made 3D printed protective face masks using the LEHVOSS Group‘s LUVOSINT TPU material, which meets Europe’s FFP2 and FFP3 filtering standards; these masks can also be cleaned in the dishwasher! LEHVOSS Group also worked with Farsoon and the Huaxiang Group to develop optimize, and validate 3D printed weight-optimized goggles, which feature acrylic lenses coated with anti-fogging material and help protect the highly exposed mucous membrane of the eyes of medical staff. Many companies, including Essentium, BEGO, and Solvay, and Forecast 3D, Ricoh, and Fast Radius, are using 3D printing to make face masks and face shields.

The Pneumask project, developed by researchers from several universities, is an interesting one. The team figured out how to convert a full-face snorkel mask into a N95-style face mask, using a 3D printed adapter to attach a filter to the snorkel. Italian company ISINNOVA developed a new continuous positive airways pressure (CPAP) mask design, replacing the respiratory tube with a plastic support that works with medical oxygen supply pipes. It’s basically a snorkeling face mask that uses two 3D printed connectors to convert into a CPAP design. In an effort to cut down on the enormous amount of medical waste being generated, ExOne worked with the University of Pittsburgh to develop autoclavable, 3D printed reusable metal filters for filtration masks and other equipment, and Materialise created a bracket that shapes an ill-fitting N95 or FFP2 mask to a person’s facial contours so it can be used comfortably, instead of being discarded.

VENTILATORS, ADAPTERS, RESPIRATORS

A batch of 3D printed Venturi valves requested by the hospital in Italy. Image courtesy of Isinnova.

Another major 3D printing application for COVID-19 has been ventilators, respirators, and assorted adapters. Medtronic released the design specifications for its $8,000 PB560 ventilator system, and as of April, had increased ventilator production in Ireland by 40%.  The 3D Design and Innovation division at Northwell Health, New York State’s largest health care provider, developed a method for converting common BiPAP (bi-level positive airway pressure) machines into functional mechanical ventilators, using 3D printed adapters; this one was approved by the FDA for emergency use, while many others developed by non-medical professionals have not been, and could even be dangerous. Additionally, Materialise created a positive end expiratory pressure, or PEEP, mask, which provides emergency breathing assistance so true ventilators can be used by truly critical patients. One of the biggest stories of the year was certainly ISINNOVA’s reverse-engineered venturi valves in Italy, which are an important component in non-invasive oxygen therapy using venturi masks; Isinnova and Lonati SpA used 3D printing to replicate traditionally made valves.

Oregon Health and Science University trauma surgeon Albert Chi worked with 3D printed prosthetics company Limbitless Solutions to create a ventilator, featuring 3D printed parts, that does not require electricity, instead using airflow from an oxygen tank. The Leitat1 bag valve mask (BVM), an emergency respirator with 3D printed parts created by a consortium of Spanish companies, can be used as an auxiliary device for use when long-term respirator systems are unavailable. This spring, the BVM was successfully used in the field with ICU patients in Catalonia’s Hospital Parc Taulí. Additionally, the University of Michigan and Michigan Medicine designed a 3D printable, personalized splitting device, which can tailor air pressure to several patients from a single ventilator unit.

NASAL SWABS, TEST STICKS, ANTIBODY DETECTION

A batch of nasal swabs being 3D printed using Carbon equipment. Image courtesy of Carbon.

3D printed nasal swabs, or nasopharyngeal swabs, can be used to collect clinical test samples of nasal secretions from the back of a person’s nose and throat. These were once a fairly niche product, but thanks to COVID-19 testing, the application is exploding. Big companies like Formlabs, HP, EnvisionTEC, and Carbon have all been printing these swabs, and a research team from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) completed a clinical trial this spring and found four novel prototypes of 3D printed swabs that can be used for COVID testing. Three Dutch businesses banded together to make, package and sterilize 3D printed COVID-19 test strips in just two weeks, which were validated by RIVM, a member of the diagnostics task force. DEAM organized the supply chain, Almed packed the swabs, and Oceanz printed the sticks according to ISO 13485 guidelines. But what I found most interesting in this category was the work conducted by a multidisciplinary team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). The team used Optomec’s Aerosol Jet technology to 3D print inexpensive sensors that can identify COVID-19 antibodies in about ten seconds.

MATERIALS RESEARCH

A door handle printed using SPEE3D’s ACTIVAT3D copper. Image courtesy of SPEE3D.

Plenty of COVID-related research was also aimed at 3D printing materials this year. Australian startup SPEE3D modified its kinetic 3D SP3D printing method so it could fabricate antimicrobial copper onto existing metal surfaces, as the material kills 96% of SARS-CoV-2 germs on contact in just two hours. According to studies by accredited medical lab 360Biolabs, SPEE3D’s ACTIVAT3D copper was able to kill 96% of the virus in two hours and 99.2% of the virus in 5 hours…much better than stainless steel, which had no effect. The company is looking into coating existing metal substrates, like door handles and rails, with copper, since it’s impossible to achieve continuous disinfection of these common surfaces, and Copper3D in Chile has been developing ventilator splitters and face masks from its copper filament.

Several European partners used 3D printing in a project called NESSIE to develop less expensive vaccines using high resolution ceramic 3D printing by Lithoz to produce chromatographic columns purifying adenoviruses, which can be used as vectors to deliver vaccine antigens or genes. Additionally, two University of Nebraska at Omaha researchers investigated 3D printing with antimicrobial polymers, and determined that it was indeed a viable application with the next few years.

BIOPRINTING TO COMBAT COVID-19

Bioprinting is also useful in COVID-19 pandemic research. Life sciences company Cellink received an order for healthcare consumables this spring from the Swedish government, and adjusted parts of its production to help by making hand sanitizer and test equipment, like a quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) instrument that can quantify and genotype human viral pathogens, such as SARS-CoV-2. Viscient Biosciences began 3D printing lung tissue for viral infectivity research to help with the global effort of fighting the novel coronavirus. South Korean bioengineering startup CLECELL is working to change the framework behind vaccine testing with its 3D printed respiratory epithelium model, which is expected to become a testbed for researching the mechanisms of several viruses, including SARS-Cov-2.

TissueLabs created MatriWell, a new platform for the in vitro study of SARS-CoV-2 in the lung epithelium, which has the important job of hosting defense against microbes that pass through and reach conducting airways and gas-exchange parenchyma. MatriWell was designed to fabricate 3D epithelial barriers in vitro. Finally, bioprinting firm Prellis Biologics has been researching the use of bioprinted lymph nodes to produce SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. The goal would be to procure a heat-killed virus, spend a month 3D printing human lymph nodes and inoculating, and screening for antibodies and sequencing them, before finding a research center that can “gest for viral neutralization and binding affinity of a given antibody” before a partner company can mass produce the antibodies.

NETWORKS, OUTREACH, AND PARTNERSHIPS

Image courtesy of HP

Of course, there’s been plenty of important work to do during the pandemic that doesn’t require bioprinting research or going into the trenches to make respirators. Right at the beginning, HP and its digital manufacturing community mobilized their collective 3D printing experience, capacity, technology, and teams to help find solutions in the fight against COVID-19, 3D printing and delivering many critical parts to help support the global health community. 3YOURMIND set up a dedicated order management platform to organize production and distribution of 3D printed supplies and parts to the hospitals and clinics where they were most needed to fight COVID-19, and DSM launched the UNITE4COVID platform to connect healthcare providers and medical professionals to manufacturers that can supply PPE.

Both Dassault Systèmes and MatterHackers set themselves up as places to share design and production solutions for necessary medical parts and devices, or connect those who need parts manufactured to those who can 3D print them. While we couldn’t be too sure about their motives, several large corporations did partner with smaller operations to offer much-needed help during the COVID crisis, and we even saw some government bodies incorporate 3D printing into their pandemic relief efforts.

NOVEL PRODUCTS

We even saw some novel 3D printed products that can help in smaller, but still important, ways during the seemingly endless pandemic. For example, Materialise created a 3D printed door opener so people don’t have to spread their germs all over the handle, and 3D LifePrints UK created several helpful items, like the “Distancer,” which makes it possible for healthcare professionals to open a door, or even swipe an ID card, without touching potentially contaminated surfaces. Swiss creative agency Atoll partnered with Pragma Engineering and Rapid Manufacturing to design a nifty 3D printable device that can be used to more safely remove protective gloves.

While some mistakes were made in 2020, we as an industry learned a lot, and the performance of 3D printing during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the technology definitely has long-term value.

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