The U.S. Is Desperate for Ventilators and N95 Masks. Can We 3D Print Them?

March 24, 2020
3d printing
Image: Shutterstock.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned manufacturing upside down. General Motors, which normally manufactures cars, has begun work on ventilator production; so have Ford and Tesla. Fashion designer Christian Siriano, meanwhile, has pivoted from hosting Project Runway to sewing medical masks — though not the elusive N95 masks ideal for those treating patients with coronavirus.

Both ventilators and masks are in alarmingly short supply; American hospitals have about 1 percent of the N95 masks needed for a yearlong pandemic.

3D-printing companies, from HP to Markforged, have gotten involved in the manufacturing effort too. Though the printers can’t churn out the same massive volumes of product as, say, injection molding, they can help with prototyping — and act as a stopgap measure while bigger manufacturers ramp up production.

“A 3D printer is a really agile and responsive tool,” Michael Papish, vice president of marketing at Markforged, told Built In.

This is already clear in Italy, where the coronavirus pandemic is most severe. A hospital in Lombardy had run out of valves for its ventilators, and the regular valve manufacturer was swamped by demand. A local startup, Isinnova, stepped in and 3D printed working copies of the existing valves — all within 24 hours.

Mass manufacturing can’t leap into action at the same speed. While mass manufacturers can make millions of identical parts cheaply, Papish estimates that building out an entirely new design, manufacturing process and supply chain can take months, if not years. General Motors, for instance, is still months away from producing working ventilators.

Though 3D printers operate on a smaller scale — think shipments in the tens of thousands, not the millions — they can start today.

So, what can additive manufacturing do in the U.S.? We spoke to three experts, including Papish, and made a brief FAQ about 3D printing’s potential uses in this crisis.

 

Can we 3D print whole, working ventilators?

No. Ventilators are complex machines, with hundreds of parts typically produced all over the world. It’s hard to make an entire ventilator in one country, let alone with one 3D printer.

Ventilators pose two core challenges to 3D printers specifically. For one, “most ventilators have built-in electronic components as well as plastic components,” Formlabs healthcare director Gaurav Manchanda explained to Built In. These electronics precisely track metrics like flow rate — how much air is flowing into the patient’s lungs.

While 3D printers can print incredibly intricate objects, like fossil replicas, they aren’t Star Trek replicators, Papish noted. They typically work with one material at a time; they can’t yet print objects with complex internal circuitry.

 

Can we print ventilator parts, like Italy?

Yes. “We can certainly print components of these emergency ventilators,” Manchanda said.

In fact, this is arguably what 3D printers can do best in this crisis — convert almost-working machines into working ones with new valves and other hardware tweaks. “[It] just requires creative thinking and design thinking,” Papish said.

However, American regulations require testing before new medical supplies see action in hospitals. That means 3D-printed valves aren’t likely to go into use within a day, the way they did in Italy.

Hospitals are currently expediting their testing processes for new gear, Manchanda said, but testing can still take a week or more.

 

Can we 3D print masks?

Probably not N95 masks. These rely on a special kind of synthetic fabric, melt-blown fabric, made from ultra-fine fibers about one-tenth as thick as a strand of hair. Few, if any, 3D printers can print at that level of precision, let alone at any reasonable speed.

However, American regulations around medical masks are slackening as the pandemic intensifies, and, recently, the president of Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Peter Slavin, publicly requested 3D-printed industrial masks.

“The formula for producing these masks is available online for free,” he said. “I would hope companies across the country ... would start making masks later this afternoon.”

“Right now it looks like many of the components [of masks] can be printed,” Manchanda said, echoing Slavin. “Whether they are functional or clinically approved is the bigger question mark.”

Markforged, Papish said, is exploring printing face guards, a shield-like alternative to masks. The company is also prototyping hardware that can convert HEPA filters and other filtering materials into medical masks.

“Maybe we could design and print an apparatus to take advantage of something that already exists,” Papish said.

 

How about coronavirus testing — can 3D printers help there?

Yes.  Formlabs and Markforged are both working on developing 3D-printed nasal swabs for testing kits. Since these swabs go inside the body, though — inside the nasal cavity, specifically — they’re especially tightly regulated.

Untested materials, nTopology’s chief technology officer Blake Courter told Built In, can “blister someone’s skin because the material hasn’t been tested against the health worker who was working for 36 hours.” So imagine what it could do to a nasal passage!

To accelerate testing, Formlabs made its swabs from a biocompatible, sterilizable resin already approved for dental use. These swabs are in the final phases of clinical trials.

Markforged is also hoping to develop hardware that can improve labs’ testing workflows. Its teams are not sure exactly what this will look like, Papish said, but they’ve found that custom hardware can shave a lot of time off repeated processes like transporting tests in bulk. Once, for instance, the company developed hardware that helped a client’s team wind and unwind an industrial spool in one-tenth the time it once took.

 

Can anyone with a 3D printer help out with the medical supply shortage?

Yes and no. Anyone with a 3D printer can help with dreaming and prototyping, and plenty of open-source projects have sprung up to do just that.

However, when it comes to making ventilators and masks hospitals can actually use, “quality control becomes… something to really pay attention to,” Manchanda said. The printers involved need to be consistent, and able to replicate the product reliably. Making anything on a distributed network of printers leaves room for user error, he said, and using tabletop 3D printers for K-8 classrooms to print medical supplies could be downright dangerous.

Industrial 3D printers overseen by some centralized company or government body work best, Manchanda and Papish agree.

So does Courter. “At the appropriate scale, 3D printing makes a ton of sense,” he said. “If you have a factory [and] an operations manager ... who can coordinate with a local hospital or a local government, [and] if you can operate at the scale of trucks delivering products ... you can make a difference.”

 

Can we invent some cool, new, 3D-printable gadget that solves everything?

It’s very unlikely. Courter works on engineering software that could be used to design a high-performance, lightweight face mask from scratch — but “it’s probably not a good time to start a new research and development cycle,” he said.

Again, the testing and approvals process for brand new medical equipment is long.

In our current crisis, Courter instead sees a need for “practical things that work and are known and proven ... to remove risk from a very difficult situation,” he said. “The best way, as an engineer, to remove risks is to stick with what you know and not do new research.”

Rather than focusing on innovation right now, he thinks 3D printing companies — and the tech scene, in general — should follow medical professionals’ lead. What would serve them best? Maybe, he noted, it’s not tech at all — maybe it’s a simple spreadsheet, or a blood donation.

“It needs to be a pull, not a push,” he said.

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