Additive manufacturing supports healthcare in times of COVID-19

23 April 2020 - Published by Marijke Van Gysegem
Additive manufacturing experts, designers and providers are responding to the global crisis by volunteering their respective skills. They help ease the pressure on supply chains, governments and the healthcare system.

We are facing a pandemic that has taken hold of the entire world. Countries are issuing travel restrictions and implementing social distancing measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. People are self-isolating and working from home to keep a semblance of normality intact. During this crisis, medical professionals are going above and beyond their call of duty to flatten the peak of this pandemic and to save lives. The healthcare systems have become overloaded with a lack of skilled workforce and essential equipment not only for the patients but for the medical staff helping them.

These specialist resources include PPE (personal protective equipment) for medical personnel and ventilators for patients as the novel coronavirus attacks the lungs in severe cases. During this time of need when the medical community has come together, another community has joined forces to deliver specialist resources to support this cause and that is the additive manufacturing (AM) community. This is, perhaps, the first time the AM community has come together for a common goal.

Additive manufacturing has emerged as a supply chain enabler and is providing products in mass quantities ranging from PPE such as face masks, medical device components such as ventilator valves and ecosystem components such as hands-free door openers, as COVID-19 can be picked up from hard surfaces. In addition to medical grade devices, AM has also been used to manufacture isolation wards with an area of approximately 10 square meters for hospitals in China to house infected patients. AM experts, designers and providers are responding to the global crisis by volunteering their respective skills to ease the pressure on supply chains and governments. Companies are making their designs freely available. SMEs, large corporations, and governments alike are setting up AM networks with specified objectives to manufacture medical grade equipment for medical professionals.

It might be difficult to characterises our current situation as anything but chaotic. However, there is a real opportunity for us to reflect, improve and build a better future. Every crisis provides the opportunity to learn and we should acknowledge the impact of AM on our lives. Considering the rapid response provided by AM, we should consider developing a network with the goal of designing, improvising, optimising (through design for additive manufacturing, DfAM), manufacturing and seeking state/FDA approvals for medical grade devices and components. We have seen the capabilities of AM and have benefited greatly from them. This is the time to be pro-active rather than reactive and develop plans that can help reduce negative impacts in the future.

Author: Javaid Butt, Reader in Digital Manufacturing, A.R.U.