Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

How the 3D printing industry is stepping up to help the COVID-19 response

With critical medical gear in short supply, additive manufacturing is an "essential part" of the pandemic response, the industry says.

As the  COVID-19 outbreak worsens across the US, the urgent need for medical gear has compelled the additive manufacturing industry -- makers of 3D printers like Stratasys and HP, as well as their customers -- to put their tools to work in completely new ways. They're making face shields and other kinds of personal protective equipment for medical providers, as well as much-needed ventilators for patients. 

With this kind of critical medical gear in short supply, 3D printing offers a fast way to fill in some of the gaps, the industry says. 

"The strengths of 3D printing – be anywhere, print virtually anything, adapt on the fly – make it a capability for helping address shortages of parts related to shields, masks, and ventilators, among other things," Stratasys CEO Yoav Zeif said in a statement. Calling additive manufacturing "an essential part" of the pandemic response, he said Stratasys' workforce and partners "are prepared to work around the clock to meet the need for 3D printers, materials, including biocompatible materials, and 3D-printed parts."

Here's how Stratasys and others are stepping up: 

Stratasys ramps up production of 3D-printed face shields

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Stratasys says it's mobilizing all of its resources to quickly produce thousands of disposable face shields that it will provide to medical personnel for free. Using its direct manufacturing facilities in Minnesota; Austin, Texas; and Valencia, Calif., the company plans to make both a 3D-printed frame and a clear plastic shield that covers the entire face. Medical technology company Medtronic and the Minneapolis-based Dunwoody College of Technology are providing support for the plastic shield material, Stratasys says. 

The company's initial goal is to produce 5,000 face shields by this Friday. After that, it should be able to scale up to a faster rate of production. 

Stratasys is also inviting other 3D printing shops in the US to get involved. It's posted the full face shield printing and assembly instructions on its COVID-19 response page, and there's an online form shops can fill out to join the Stratasys effort. 

In addition to producing face shields, Stratasys is joining the CoVent-19 Challenge, an initiative that asks engineers and designers to help develop new, rapidly deployable ventilators. The effort is led by anesthesiology residents of Massachusetts General Hospital, and Stratasys plans to support the challenge and promote it via its GrabCAD community. 

HP delivers 3D-printed parts for face shields, nasal swabs, etc.

HP is mobilizing to produce a variety of 3D-printed components for medical facilities across the globe. So far, the company has helped deliver more than 1,000 3D-printed parts to local hospitals, and it's in the process of testing and validating designs for a wide range of components. (Update: as of March 27, HP had 3D-printed between 5,000 and 10,000 parts in a span of 24 hours, a spokesperson told ZDNet).

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"We are collaborating across borders and industries to identify the parts most in need, validate the designs, and begin 3D printing them," CEO Enrique Lores said in a statement. 

The first products that can get out the door, HP says, include 3D-printed components for face masks, face shields, mask adjusters, nasal swabs, hands-free door openers and respirator parts. HP also plans to begin testing and validating designs for other applications, including a mechanical bag valve mask (BVM) that is designed for use as a short-term emergency ventilator. It's also working on validating  several hospital-grade face masks and expects them to be available shortly.

The work is happening at HP's 3D R&D centers in Barcelona, Spain; Corvallis, Oregon; San Diego, California; and Vancouver, Washington.

HP and its partners will be making the validated design files for many of the parts that do not require complex assembly freely available here. It's also inviting 3D designers who want to contribute new applications and ideas to visit this website. Lastly, any hospitals or companies that want to request the development of a specific 3D-printed part can submit requests here.

Protolabs deemed an "essential business" in Minnesota

Protolabs, the Minnesota-based digital manufacturer, has been deemed an essential business as it prioritizes medical orders on its manufacturing floor. It's waiving expedite fees for medical companies to get orders out the door as quickly as possible, and it's partnering with organizations to produce innovative new designs. 

The company has provided updates on Twitter about its progress. As of Sunday, it had 14 molding presses loaded with ventilator parts, with thousands already completed and ready for distribution. Protolabs also worked with the University of Minnesota to design a new ventilator, from concept to prototype, over the course of one night. Last week, the company said it quickly produced thousands of components for COVID-19 test kits

Formlabs producing 3D-printed COVID-19 test swabs

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 The Boston-based Formlabs is working to supply hospitals with 3D-printed COVID-19 test swabs, the company shared on Twitter. With help from its community of users, Formlabs has organized the deployment of nearly 1,000 printers to quickly mass-produce the swabs, as well as other personal protective equipment.

A single print can produce 300 test swabs at a time, Formlabs told ZDNet, enabling the company to produce between 75,000 and 150,000 swabs per day. Formlabs collaborated with US hospitals, including the University of South Florida and Northwell Health, on the swab design and plans share the design files with its community and other health systems. 

The company has years of experience working with the US FDA on medical-grade software and materials. In addition to printing test swabs, Formlabs is validating designs for other test kit components, face shields and respiratory masks. 

Ford uses 3D printers to produce face shields 

Ford Motor Company is partnering with GE Healthcare to expand production of ventilators and other critical equipment in the US, CEO Jim Hackett said on CBS This Morning on Tuesday. As part of its efforts, the automotive giant is using its 3D printing factories to produce plastic face shields and components for personal protective equipment. Ford plans to assemble more than 100,000 face shields per week

The first 1,000 face shields will be tested this week at Detroit Mercy, Henry Ford Health Systems and Detroit Medical Center Sinai-Grace Hospitals, Ford said. Roughly 75,000 are expected to be finished by the end of the week. 

Volkswagen deploys 3D printers to produce medical equipment

Volkswagen has formed a task force responsible for adapting its manufacturing facilities for the production of ventilators and medical gear, the company said last week. Part of that effort includes leveraging its more than 125 industrial 3D printers.

"Medical equipment is a new field for us," the company said in a statement to Reuters. "But as soon as we understand the requirements, and receive a blueprint, we can get started."

Prototype components have already been printed, the company said. 

SmileDirectClub shifts from teeth straightening to medical supplies

SmileDirectClub, the oral care company known for its direct-to-consumer teeth straightening kits, has opened up its manufacturing facility for the production of medical supplies. The company says it is one of the largest 3D printing manufacturers in the US. 

It's partnering with medical supply companies and health organizations to produce supplies such as medical face shields and respirator valves. Specifically, the company can print materials using STL 3D printing files. And thanks to recent automations that increased its printing output capacity, the company says it can easily ramp up production. SmileDirectClub is also offering the help of its global HIPAA-trained contact center team and support system.

SmileDirectClub is urging medical supply companies and health organizations to contact them directly at resilience@smiledirectclub.com

"In times like these, it is incumbent on all of us do what we can to help those in need however we can," SmileDirectClub CEO David Katzman said in a statement.  "Reports of medical supply shortages are very concerning and we have the production capacity to help in the printing of plastic materials."