The “Printernet of Things” Comes of Age

3D printing helps replenish critical medical supplies

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, has long been regarded as a transformative and flexible approach to production. But now more than ever, it’s proving its worth as a vital method of on-demand production.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads around the globe, healthcare providers are turning to 3D printing as a stopgap measure to fabricate much-needed equipment. While medical companies and even car-makers are ramping up production of vital medical equipment such as ventilators and other supplies cleared by authorities, companies in the 3D printing business have been making efforts to step up and show the value of a new generation of manufacturing.

HP, Formlabs, Desktop Metal, Stratasys and others have been working to enlist 3D printing to help in the ongoing crisis. HP, for example, has designed 3D-printed parts, including hands-free door openers, mask adjusters and face shields, and is working on parts for a field ventilator that could treat the influx of critically ill Covid-19 patients.

In the fight against the coronavirus, the 3D printing industry is also starting to boost production of essential medical equipment. Already we’re seeing the benefits of the speed and innovation enabled by 3D printing. Suppliers of basic medical equipment, many located in areas crippled by the pandemic, can’t keep up with rising demand. And as the mobilization in the US of home-grown production continues to gear up, health officials and 3D printing companies are sharing digital files that can be “printed” into potentially life-saving equipment in a fraction of the time.

3D printers, used in industries including aircraft parts manufacturing and home building, are having their moment during the coronavirus pandemic. For the past few years, 3D printing has been on the verge of a breakthrough, and it can now show the public what it’s capable of accomplishing. A technology that can produce parts at scale in multiple locations at one time, and go from design to production in a day, is in some sense designed for a crisis like this. There are an estimated 47,000 industrial-scale 3D printers installed in the US, but ironically most of them are currently idle owing to coronavirus-related industry closures.

Of course, this is a global crisis. Italy, for example, has been hit hard by the pandemic, which is causing severe shortages of medical supplies. Again, 3D printing is playing an important role. For example, in March 2020, a company in Italy designed and printed 100 life-saving respirator valves in a day for a hospital that had run out of original valves amid the growing number of confirmed cases in the country. The valve connects intensive care patients to respiratory machines that help them breathe.

In the US, Carbon, whose 3D printing technology is called Digital Light Synthesis, is best known for its partnership with Adidas, for which it makes midsoles of elastomer that feature a lightweight, latticework design that is only possible with 3D printing technology.

In the past few weeks, Carbon designed face shields in conjunction with Verily, the Alphabet company behind the Covid-19 online screening website, Project Baseline. The companies worked together to print prototypes and got them tested at Stanford Hospital and Kaiser Permanente. Carbon’s designers also started working on 3D-printed Covid-19 nasal test swabs, which are also in short supply and among the reasons for the bottleneck in testing. The company hopes to be able to distribute the swabs soon, but it doesn’t have an exact timeline for this.

Tragic events often lead to transformations. When the world moves beyond the current pandemic, 3D printing will have gained new levels of respect beyond instant prototyping. The so-called “printernet of things” is proving its worth.