Technology Executive Council

How 3-D printing is helping the US fight medical equipment shortages and the coronavirus pandemic

Key Points
  • COVID-19 has transformed 3-D printing, and companies like Stratasys, Shapeways and Carbon are rushing to rapidly produce much needed medical test equipment, ventilator components and face masks during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The rapid prototyping technology allows designs for a face mask part, ventilator component or even a coronavirus nasal testing swab to be pushed out to thousands of computers instantly.
  • A downside to 3-D design innovation is that many products haven't worked, and companies in the sector have disappointed investors in financial performance.
  • However, the pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in global supply chains that could support the 3-D printing industry's growth.
3-D printing company Carbon has created midsoles for Adidas shoes, football helmet liners for Riddell. Now it will produce and ship up to 50,000 face shields to help in the COVID-19 fight.
Carbon

To combat the medical equipment shortages caused by the coronavirus pandemic, GE Healthcare is using 3-D printing to make tools that accelerate ventilator production. Jeff Bezos' space venture Blue Origin is leveraging 3-D printers to make plastic components for face shields. And with support from Adidas, digital manufacturing firm Carbon, in Silicon Valley, is using its highly elastic polymer featured in $200 Adidas running shoes to produce more than 15,000 face shields weekly for health-care workers caring for COVID-19 patients.

Ford, Boeing, HP, Medtronic and the U.S. military are among the manufacturing powers funding, designing and producing a battery of protective gear and medical equipment to fill in supply shortages around the world. But it is 3-D printing firms, as well as a cottage industry of home-based 3-D design tinkerers, that are making a broader call to action possible.

The 3-D printing industry's designs, materials and networks of machines — which allow a digital design of a face mask part, ventilator component or even a nasal swab to be pushed out to thousands of computers instantly — is having a moment. "Additive manufacturing — 3-D printing — is well suited for rapid prototyping," said Ryan Martin, principal analyst at ABI Research. "COVID-19 pulls forward that capability from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have."

Rapid prototyping — or designing scale models quickly, in layman's terms — has been the hallmark of 3-D printing's role in manufacturing for the 30 years the industry has existed. Instead of waiting for product to be mass produced overseas and then shipped to a warehouse, 3-D printing allows components to be made on-demand and close by.

"It could be a couple of machines — or 20 or 200 — close to where it's needed," said Terry Wohlers, president of consulting firm Wohlers Associates, which tracks the industry. "One day you could be making face shields, another, parts for ventilators."

Millions of masks and test kits needed

Today that's precisely how this loose coalition of 3-D printers around the world is operating. Answering calls from local hospitals and nursing homes, individual designers with printers at home are pulling open-source component designs from the internet. Universities and 3-D printing companies like Stratasys and Carbon are crowdsourcing industrial customers to print as many products as they can. Demand is high: Stratasys says it's receiving requests for 40,000 face shields a week, namely from health-care sources and first responders.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, presiding over the epicenter of the outbreak, recently said he needed 3 million masks for health-care workers. And a March survey of 213 cities and Puerto Rico by the United States Conference of Mayors estimates that to fight the virus, cities are going to need 28.5 million face masks, 24.4 million other PPE items, 7.9 million test kits and 139,000 ventilators.

"This crisis brought to light the promise of 3-D printing and its ability to change the world," said Yoav Zeif, CEO of Stratasys, which is one of the largest manufacturers of 3-D printers and technology. Stratasys, which has long sold tech solutions to the world's manufacturing firms to make supply chains more flexible, first saw the need earlier this year in Hong Kong for face shields, the plastic sheets that fit over health-care workers' faces or masks as they care for patients with the new, highly contagious coronavirus.

The University Hospital Trust in Paris acquired 60 FDM 3-D printers from Stratasys in late March to create an in-house rapid-response supply chain.
Stratasys

When it became clear that the disease was spreading around the world, Stratasys set up a cloud of machines with more than 150 of its customers "that can print everything," Zeif said. Stratasys' network includes thousands of printers at U.S. companies like Mattel and universities like the University of Minnesota who will collectively churn out more than 120,000 shields this month. Stratasys collects the gear, then sends it out to more than two dozen health systems, including the Mayo Clinic.

Carbon, a venture-backed, 480-employee firm in Redwood City, California, is concentrating on face shields and nasal swabs for testing. Before the coronavirus, it was focused on creating complex 3-D products like midsoles for Adidas shoes, football helmet liners for Riddell and medical devices. Now Carbon is producing more than 15,000 face shields a week; it can leverage its global partner network to scale up to 50,000 units a week if needed.

"We pivoted and said, 'We can't do what we normally do, so what can we do to help?'" said Carbon CEO Ellen Kullman, whose shields were tested by professionals at Stanford Hospital and Kaiser Permanente. "Shields and swabs were things we could act on quickly as standalone products; we had a couple of iterations of face shields out in the hands of medical personnel within two days."

Carbon's nasal testing swabs, fast-tracked to FDA approval, are made from Carbon's lattice design structures. The first shipped last week and the company plans on 1-million per week.
Carbon

Design of the nasal testing swabs, which as a Class 1 510(k) exempt device didn't need FDA approval, took longer — a coalition of researchers performed clinical assessments of the swabs based on a list of criteria: ease of use, patient comfort and adequately capturing enough specimen (among other things). The swabs, made from Carbon's lattice design structures, recently started shipping; Carbon is leveraging its partner, medical device maker Resolution Medical, to produce and distribute more than 1 million swabs each week.

"The adaptability of 3-D printing is really shining through," Kullman said. "There are lots of stories of small printers turning 180 degrees and stopping whatever they're doing to make something very different to fill a need," she said. "Additive manufacturing is going to come out of this with people thinking differently about it than they have."

Johnson & Johnson has been using 3-D printing, in collaboration with Prisma Health, to manufacture and distribute a ventilator expansion splitter device, which allows a single respirator unit to be used with more than one patient. The FDA granted emergency authorization for the solution to help address the ventilator shortage.

A landslide of 3-D printed innovation

While the coming together of thousands of idle 3-D printers to boost the pile of much needed medical equipment has resulted in a landslide of innovation, there is a downside: Many of the initial products didn't fill an exact need, didn't meet appropriate medical or government guidelines, and some, with mismatched components and fittings, just didn't work. 

"We have hundreds of engineers on staff and have invested over $100 million to create processes and technology to get the most out of 3-D printing; we are making thoughtful, intelligent decisions," said Gregory Kress, CEO of Shapeways, a 3-D printing firm in New York that's working with local hospitals to produce face shields and ventilator components (it is also working on respiratory masks and nasal test swabs, longer-term projects). "Not everyone with a desktop printer at home is going to be able to do that."

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Like Shapeways, most 3-D printing firms are working with their skilled talent pools to adapt their processes and products to fill the urgent need for medical supplies — many already count medical device firms as clients. Another way that independent designers and printers can more effectively contribute is to download designs from the NIH 3D Print Exchange, a repository of prototypes set up by America Makes, a Youngstown, Ohio, accelerator for additive manufacturing and 3-D printing. The repository was built in partnership with the FDA, NIH and VA; designs submitted there are fast-tracked for government review by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Some of the products weren't filling needs or weren't products that could be used in a medical setting," said Andrew Resnick, director of communications and public affairs for America Makes, noting that 75 designs have been submitted so far with 12 reviewed for use in a clinical setting. The goal is a geographic-specific system that will match supply and demand based on location. "We needed to find some way to centralize this process to be sure that what's taking place is being done effectively and safely," he said.

Analysts warn that in the near term, all this movement in the 3-D printing market probably won't result in a big jump in sales until we're well through the pandemic. In line with the overall market, publicly traded Stratasys has seen its share continue to fall throughout the crisis. Today its stock trades for roughly half its 52-week high, and longer term its shares have been under pressure.

Stratasys is not alone in seeing the promise get ahead of the market reality. 3D Systems has seen its stock suffer similarly in recent years. Funds that launched to capture the industry's growth by tracking a basket of stocks related to the theme, such as the Ark Invest 3D Printing ETF, have declined as well. 

Investors, especially those who have weathered watching manufacturing and equipment sectors in past recessions, might be worried about a longer-term drop in revenue that will reflect the bigger economic picture. The 3-D printing sector, mired down by the pandemic-induced shutdown of much of its regular business, also faces specific challenges related to the elongated cycles between new technology adoption.

"COVID-19 has provided a unique and probably rich opportunity for 3-D printing firms to showcase capability in a manner in which wouldn't currently have occurred, providing an educational experience for folks they're working with in real time to tangibly see what their benefit is," said Ananda Baruah, analyst at Loop Capital. "However, it is also likely the 3-D printing companies will be impacted by economic headwinds from COVID-19 and that this could have a bigger impact than what the Covid-19 advantage will have as an incremental benefit."

A tiny percentage of the overall manufacturing industry, 3-D printing has grown almost every year since its inception three decades ago, to $12 billion, and has seen a 23.3% bump over the past four years, tied to materials innovation, new product development and manufacturing. "Historically, 3-D has been used mostly for design validation and prototyping," Wohlers said. "In recent years, companies in the aerospace, medical device and other sectors have been using 3-D for actual manufacturing of lower-quantity, higher-value products." 

Despite what could become a big slowdown in regular business, the vulnerabilities of far-flung supply chains brought to light by COVID-19 has the 3-D printing companies optimistic about their future. "This pandemic is shedding light on the supply chain, fast prototyping and quick turnaround of product," Kress said. "It's allowing the consumer to get a new image of what 3-D printing can do."