3D printing may help supply more essential coronavirus medical gear


HP has offered to use its 3D printers to make necessary medical supplies to combat the coronavirus. 

Aloysius Low/CNET

For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

The medical supply shortage caused by the novel coronavirus could get some help from an unexpected source: 3D printers. 

HP, teeth straightener vendor SmileDirectClub and various other companies are exploring ways to use their 3D printing technology to build things like ventilator valves, breathing filters and face mask clasps. HP, in a press release from Wednesday, said it’s also looking at “entirely new parts such as plastic door handle adaptors which enable easy elbow opening to prevent further spread of the virus.”

“We will make available any HP proprietary design files for these parts so they can be produced anywhere in the world and are also helping end-customers bridge potential supply chain interruptions by expanding distributed print-on-demand capabilities,” the Silicon Valley tech giant said. 

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SmileDirectClub, which makes 3D printed, customized orthodontia, said on Thursday that it’s one of the largest 3D printing manufacturers in the US. It has opened its manufacturing facility and is donating plastic to help medical supply companies and health organizations increase production of needed coronavirus
medical supplies like medical face shields and respirator valves.

And people on social media have been sharing 3D printing plans for customizable face masks and forming groups to build ventilators using 3D printers and other easily available materials.

That doesn’t mean you can just 3D print your own equipment, though. Some of the items require specialized equipment, and it’s not clear how well something like a 3D printed mask would work.  

The coronavirus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. It has been linked to a family of viruses known as coronaviruses, which include SARS and MERS, and the WHO has labeled COVID-19 a pandemic. It’s changing the way we live and forcing people across the globe to stay at home and isolate themselves from others. 

The crisis has caused schools to close, while other closures have swept across the country, from Broadway theaters to NBA venues. Starting Tuesday, the San Francisco Bay Area was put on lockdown, with citizens ordered to stay at home except for essential outings. It joined places like France and Spain in limiting the movement of the public. 

Supply shortages

The lockdowns and worries about the coronavirus have caused people to rush their grocery stores, pharmacies and corner bodegas in an effort to have enough supplies to last weeks confined at home. Their shopping sprees have included toilet paper, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and masks, which have all seen shortages. 

The medical community and first responders across the country are struggling to acquire enough masks, ventilators and other essential gear to treat people infected with COVID-19. The Society of Critical Care Medicine believes nearly 1 million coronavirus patients in the US could need ventilators at some point during the outbreak, according to the AP, but the country only has about 200,000 of the machines. 

3D printing could help in some key areas, like those ventilator valves being explored by HP. Automakers like Tesla have also volunteered to help build ventilators

Also called additive manufacturing, 3D printing got an early foothold as a way to design prototypes. Since then, it’s also  crept into production lines for finished products. The unusual shapes of 3D-printed elements let companies build plastic components that are lighter than metal alternatives but couldn’t be made with conventional injection molding methods, for example.

But 3D printing can’t completely solve solve the shortages. Some items, like face masks, require complicated materials. The 3D machines themselves are still slow, requiring hours to print some designs. Small items can be printed in a matter of minutes, so making simple valves likely would be quicker. But the 3D printing process likely won’t allow for them to be mass produced at the same scale as in a factory designed for bulk production of those items. 

That’s not stopping companies from trying.

Open Source Ventilator, a group started on Facebook on March 11, aims to build a ventilator “using readily available materials, 3D printing and open-source hardware resources,” according to Forbes. In a week, the group — which has more than 300 engineers, doctors and others — has created a prototype that could be approved for use in Ireland as early as next week, the publication said. 

Copper3D, a Chilean company, has been working on printed face masks that use copper to filter harmful bugs and toxins from the air. Co-founder Daniel Martínez told 3D Printing Media Network that one mask takes about two hours to print, so it decided to open sources its design to work with other startups, makers, universities and others to quickly build supplies. Copper3D didn’t immediately respond to a request for more information about its “NanoHack” mask efforts.

CNET’s Stephen Shankland contributed to this report. 

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