On 3 March 2020, The World Health Organization (WHO) warned that severe and mounting disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) is putting lives at risk. The need for PPE for frontline workers is further exemplified by the fact that 10 percent and 20 percent of coronavirus cases are health care workers.
According to a BBC investigation, there were no gowns, visors, swabs or body bags in the government’s pandemic stockpile when Covid-19 reached the UK.
In response to the PPE shortage – namely face shields – the 3D printing community mobilised to offer a solution.
For those unfamiliar with 3D printing, it is a broad term for a group of manufacturing technologies that enables a physical part to be created from a digital file. Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) – also know as as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) – is one of the main types of 3D printing, in which a thin plastic wire (known as filament) feeds a 3D printer; the print head melts it and extrudes it onto a plate, building the object layer-by-layer.
As summarised by a 2016 DHL Report, 3D printing enables:
Lower number of production steps to design, prototype and manufacture highly complex and/or customised products
Faster delivery time through on-demand and decentralised production
Lower logistics and production costs
Higher sustainability and efficiency
Enabling Distributed Manufacturing
The democratisation of 3D printing has led to millions in use worldwide. Whilst many designs have been created, it’s the Prusa Face Shield which emerged as the de facto 3D-printable version, following approval from Czech Ministry of Health. The file is downloaded for free (and has been more than 200,000 times), optimised in 3D software, and finally printed as many times as required.
Countless 3D printing operators joined forces, mobilising a ‘Maker Army’. From hobbyists in their own homes through to major organisations such as Cisco, the whole 3D printing community has banded together for greater good.
This “citizen supply chain” is a textbook Theory into Practice implementation of distributed manufacturing – defined by Nesta as a decentralised network whereby “goods can be manufactured on-demand within miles (or even metres) of their point of use”.
Organisations such as 3DCrowd UK have emerged – managing a network of 8,000+ volunteers to serve as an easy-to-access source of PPE. Filamentive have supported this group – as well as others, such as Makers4TheNHS – with discounted 3D printing filament, funded by the generosity of the general public and corporate sponsors.
As reported by BBC, there doesn’t seem to be any official guidance for healthcare workers about the use of 3D-printed PPE, however, given the circumstances, the Government and the relevant Healthcare Bodies are certainly not discouraging it. The need for pragmaticism was perfectly summarised by Gary Riches (3DCrowd UK volunteer): “If we worry too much about whether it’s 100% perfect then nobody who needs it will get it”
Examples of 3D Printing Applications
In recent weeks, Filamentive users – as well as the wider 3D printing industry – have been using 3D printing to combat the impacts of COVID-19.
UAE-based Proto21 recently collaborated with Dubai Police for their requirement of face shields. In just 8 days, 1000 3D-printed face shields were made using Filamentive recycled PLA 3D printer filament.
Furthermore – in response to a pressing need for more ventilators to treat critically ill patients – the same company 3D-printed ventilator splitters for a Sharjah Hospital. 250 of these parts were produced in just two days.
In Reading, UK, Alex Gibson of 3D printing company Edumaker collaborated with Cisco, RACE (business unit of the UK Atomic Energy Authority) as well as Reading University and Oxford Academic Health Science Network to set-up a 3D print farm and assembly line – capable of 300 plus visors a day, to help support local NHS trusts.
Towards Agile Supply Chains
Whilst increasingly commonplace in industry, research by Sculpteo indicates that prototyping and proof of concept are still the two main applications of 3D printing overall. However, this may be a watershed moment for the technology – as concluded in this Forbes piece, “Perhaps this crisis will open more supply chain practitioners’ eyes to the possibilities of 3D printing”.
Compared to traditional manufacturing techniques such as Injection Moulding, 3D printing does not involve tooling, setup costs, or other associated costs. It therefore challenges the very notion of economies of scale. Generally, the cost-per-part is virtually the same, whether you’re producing one piece, or a thousand!
In an increasingly environmentally-aware world, sustainability cannot be ignored. Whilst fundamentally less wasteful than traditional, subtractive manufacturing methods, the use of plastic as a feedstock has the potential to exacerbate the global plastic problem unless we can find sustainable solutions. This is why at Filamentive, we prioritise recycled plastics, minimising the amount of virgin material used to manufacture 3D printing filament – limiting finite resource use, reducing plastic pollution, and enabling Circular Economy.
Whilst there is certainly room for further refinement, 3D printing could be a much-needed, shining light amidst these dark times – catalysing quick, low-cost, sustainable, local manufacturing.
The hope is that greater awareness brings greater action.