We know for a fact that the COVID-19 pandemic caught the world by surprise. The medical community from all over the world made an admission that we are on the verge of a shortage of a wide array of medical products.
It is good to know that 3D printing can provide us a badly needed stopgap solution. This should help in remedying the problem before it snowballs into a major problem, even a crisis.
Can Additive Manufacturing Address Supply Challenges on Medical Supplies?
From the time that news about the coronavirus spread in many different countries hit the headlines of different news organizations around the world, additive manufacturing or 3-dimensional printing has been taken advantage of in the production of medical devices.
These include various types of PPEs such as face masks and face shields, ventilator splitters, and NP swabs (nasopharyngeal), which is essentially needed in testing out potentially/suspected infected persons.
This only goes to show that this particular type of manufacturing technology is capable of filling in the production void of various medical essentials.
Unlike the current traditional manufacturing systems used for the majority of the production of various medical devices, which usually takes place in centralized facilities most of which are located abroad, 3D-printers are portable.
This means to say that you can take and use them anywhere, even inside hospitals and similar health care facilities.
With the help of 3D printer machines, available supplies will not be tied up just because there is a shutdown in the operation of one or two manufacturing plants due to coronavirus. For instance, it was reported to authorities that there has been a growing shortage of NP swabs.
This is because the market for these medical items is primarily dominated only by 2 manufacturing bodies. One of them is based in Maine, USA while the other is based in Italy. As can be remembered, Italy used to be a Covid-19 hotspot back in the spring of last year. Hence, the closure of their manufacturing plant.
In response to the growing demand for swabs, many hospital institutions have taken the initiative of producing their own. By this measure, they were able to accommodate their needs without needing to look for resources elsewhere. Many others resorted to purchasing from different companies abroad.
Possible 3D Printing Limitations and Risks
Given the urgency of the situation the world is in, expert minds from the medical community believe that the production of highly in-demand medical products using additive manufacturing or 3-dimensional printing is a stopgap or a temporary solution to the looming problem.
Reason being that most 3D printer machines we have today are not built for heavy-duty work. Thus, it is natural for them to have limited daily output, and trying to go beyond that would run the risk of wearing them out prematurely.
This is especially true in the case of disposable products that require large scale manufacturing. It makes additive manufacturing relatively inefficient with respect to cost and time.
And while 3D printers rely strongly on a separate supply chain, shortage remains a good possibility if demand will surpass the available supply on hand. Traditional systems in manufacturing that come with higher throughput and standardized control on quality are most preferable.
Medical products that have not undergone 3D printing before are also likely to present several risks. This is true even for items that we consider relatively simple such as swabs or face shields.
Like for instance, the FDA alerted the general public that 3D-printed PPEs are not likely as effective as FDA-approved and reviewed surgical masks in as far as protection and air filtration against fluids are concerned.
There are even instances that 3D-printed PPEs and materials can be porous, thus they pose a certain level of challenge when it comes to sterilizing them.