Expert’s Corner: Additive Manufacturing Response to COVID Crisis

blank blank Sep 15, 2020

The recent Coronavirus pandemic has led to a huge variety of challenges and opportunities in recent months and it was fascinating to see the rapid and enthusiastic responses from all corners of the design and manufacturing industries, and especially the Additive Manufacturing (AM) / 3D Printing community.

In the initial stages of the crisis, the response from the AM community was inspiring and showed a great deal of altruism, passion, and genuine desire to help from major manufacturers to the home hobbyists. It was interesting to see how rapidly the initial enthusiasm for 3D printing all kinds of medical devices was tempered by the realization that the desperation for products or parts (whether perceived or real) could not outweigh the possible risks of non-compliant medical devices. The initial proliferation of ideas was now featuring cautionary posts from academic and industry experts with regulatory or safety experience. This sparked a division in efforts between those companies that had or could quickly achieve medical certification and the very many for whom that would be impossible. This led to the rapid shift towards lower-risk products and a proliferation of designs for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which in turn led to a convergence on the production of visors. The speed of convergence on not only the product type but the design was amazing to witness as there was no overall coordination or governmental intervention. It was the natural evolution of design by consensus.

Even within the realm of visors, there was an explosion of ideas, designs, and prototypes coming from so many people in so many places that it became impossible to follow all of the developments. Initially, I followed developments in the UK and attempted to connect people and organizations and also to offer advice to designers, makers, and the UK government but eventually, there were simply so many things happening all over social media that I had to give up trying to keep track of them all and instead focus my attention on what we could do locally for our nearest healthcare providers. It seems many others also concentrated on local needs; there was a proliferation of local agreements between schools, colleges, local companies, and healthcare providers to supply 3D printed PPE, typically without any adherence to certification.

I then helped coordinate Loughborough University’s response to local demand and enquiries which led to productive collaborations including, for example, one with Toyota Manufacturing UK that produced 2000 visors for Derby Hospitals NHS Trust.

David Thompson in one of the Loughborough University 3D printing labs

There were some noble and, in a few cases, successful attempts at national coordination, such as the 3D Crowd initiative, which closed its response on 24th June having supplied 200,000 visors. 

Whilst all this took place, the mainstream manufacturing industry took up the challenge, and very quickly injection molding took over with its inherent mass-production speed and low-cost increasingly meeting demand. However, in addition to the national coordination schemes, there were some notable examples of where 3D Printing approached the production rates of injection molding such as Photocentric who managed to scale up production and was rewarded with a UK Government contract as a result.

There were similarly successful niche products such as the swab printed by FormLabs. However, the crisis revealed that even within the mainstream medical device manufacturers and the larger players in the AM sector, we are still a long way from achieving the dreams of being able to rapidly and cheaply produce approved and certified medical devices on-demand fast enough to respond to emergencies on the scale of a global pandemic.

Whilst the crisis continues, and we face a long and uncertain battle against the virus, the immediate drivers of the responses from the AM community have thankfully subsided. Although it remains challenging, the situation thankfully did not reach the catastrophic levels of the most pessimistic predictions, and in the UK at least the National Health Service was not overwhelmed.

It is now interesting to reflect on the stages of the activity and how the emphasis shifted from the initial responses to the current situation and what drove that response. It is worth pointing out that these “phases” happened incredibly quickly, in a matter of days in some cases, and at different rates in different places as the pandemic peaked in different countries and even different cities. What is remarkable is the sheer speed and volume of response from the design and maker communities. It should also be noted that it was very difficult to see these phases in the moment and it is only with reflection after the fact that they can be perceived.

Table 1 – Response from the AM Community perspective
Key 1 – Characteristic stages of an unplanned response

It is clear that many of the positive attributes of AM and distributed manufacturing were realized through this crisis. However, it also starkly revealed the limitations and obstacles that remain to prevent the dreams of on-demand, local, distributed manufacturing (at least when applied to safety-critical medical devices). These limitations included a lack of any means of coordination or matching of need to supply. A lack of awareness of standards and regulation or how to apply them and a lack of any clear sense of which organization was in authority. In the UK, the Government invited new ideas and suppliers through an online portal but it was quickly overwhelmed leading to many receiving either no reply or waiting many weeks to get a reply by which time the situation had changed. The limitations of current 3D printers and materials and a lack of knowledge or confidence in regulation resulting in simpler products, such as PPE visors. It should also be noted that AM was not the solution in isolation and that many other manufacturing processes and manual labor were needed. 

This crisis has provided a real-life stress test of manufacturing adaptability whilst the response of the grassroots AM community is highly commendable and to be celebrated, the fact that it became necessary illustrates the weaknesses of national (governmental) manufacturing policy, capability, capacity, and the fragility of global supply chains.

We now have the opportunity to learn from these experiences and develop new ways of working that can be much more responsive, resilient, coordinated, and efficient. AM and other technologies such as laser cutting and the design and manufacturing community showed that the inherent advantages of digital technologies can be realized in terms of rapid initiation and ramp-up to genuinely useful volumes and usable products. Projects such as the one by Nottingham University showed that good design for AM can produce certified products. It also showed that highly distributed manufacturing capacity can be highly effective at meeting local and national needs when properly coordinated.

Perhaps something like the table below would provide a good model for future crises?

Table 2 – Planned national / regional response model
Key 2 – Characteristics of planned response


Thanks to my colleague Dr. Andy Gleadall for his advice and contributions to this article. Thanks to everyone that contributed to all of the Loughborough University projects.

About the Author:

Professor Richard Bibb

Professor Richard Bibb

Richard Bibb is Professor of Medical Applications of Design at the School of Design & Creative Arts, Loughborough University. Since gaining his PhD in Rapid prototyping in 1999 he has specialised in research exploring design for Additive Manufacturing and advanced digital design techniques in surgery, prosthetics, orthotics and medical devices. He moved to Loughborough University in 2008 and established the Digital Design & Fabrication research group in 2014. He has contributed to research projects attracting approximately £17m from EU, UK research councils, charities and industry, published more than 100 peer reviewed articles and presented at many international conferences.

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