Is COVID-19 Pandemic Re-Shaping Healthcare 3D Printing?

— Innovation at A Time of Crisis

Crises come in many different shapes throughout human history, but a pandemic is unique as it affects every individual, every company, and every industry. It draws our attention to our personal health and our healthcare systems in an intense fashion that no other crisis can. For many people, there are at least two simultaneous battlefronts: one physical, and one financial. Larger companies slow down due to supply chain disruption and market contraction, but things are even worse for smaller companies that cannot effectively launch, fundraise, pivot, or even survive. However, to quote John F. Kennedy, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.”

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No pun intended.

The silver lining of this devastating pandemic is that this moment could be a turning point of 3D printing, and what it represents for the future of manufacturing and medicine. In the last few weeks, the optimists have welcomed 3D printing into their toolbox to combat the pandemic, as an individual, and as companies. Existing 3D printing companies, large or small, have sprung to the frontline and removed many barriers and fear of working together on both solutions and distribution networks. Companies with 3D printing capabilities but no prior healthcare experiences are now in direct conversation with hospitals, healthcare providers, and other first responders. Hundreds if not thousands of private citizens with desktop 3D printers and knowledge of CAD design have demonstrated creativities not commonly witnessed before. Hundreds of designs for components of PPE, ventilators, test swaps appeared overnight. For the longest time, 3D printing industry has struggled with finding the killer app, as the lack of creative use of the technology is considered one of the major barriers to healthcare adoption. However, this pandemic has given us a good opportunity to reflect upon this.  

Some good questions to ask include the following:

  1. Is the usefulness of 3D printing limited to be a stopgap in the current medical device supply chain?   
  2. Will 3D printing find more killer apps through this crisis against humanity?
  3. Can 3D printing deliver what it promises to healthcare, ranging from an agile supply chain to mass customization?
  4. Will society embrace more automation (3D printing or other digital manufacturing technologies)?

There is no easy way to answer the above questions, but what is clear is that like any other emerging technology, 3D printing needs innovations to continue to grow. This blog explores how the COVID-19 pandemic can potentially positively accelerate healthcare 3D printing innovations.  To summarize, there are five factors that are at play, both in short and long terms: time pressure, social distancing, positive messaging, social mission, experimental culture (or organizational flexibility).

Time Pressure

If we could spur creativity using time pressure, a lot more companies will do so. The reality is that innovative companies often play the long game, and extreme time pressure is in general not beneficial to innovating big ideas, based on one HBR article. [1] Examples of successful companies playing the long game in innovation include the Bell lab/AT&T, 3M, Google, where employees have protected explorative time for years, aiming for world-changing ideas.

However, some may be reminded of lesson learned from the Apollo 13 crisis in 1970, where raw brain power figured out a creative solution for air filtration crisis on board to save the lives of the astronauts under extreme time pressure. [1, 2] Right now, we are on Apollo 13, and we are witnessing raw creative power at play in 3D printing. One could consider a new term “pandemic innovation” to describe the current situation, where a combination of time pressure, existential thread, ability to focus (as a result of social distancing) encourages innovations. [1, 2] However, this kind of innovation aims to solve a singular problem, and not enough for those who want to change the post-COVID world.

Therefore, “time pressure” alone is not enough for a more sustainable long-term innovative culture.  

Social-Distancing

Many now have heard of the story how quarantine time during the Great Plaque of London in 1665 allowed Issac Newton, at the time a student, became a turning point of his career. [3] While in isolation, Newton was able to have long stretch of time to work alone and had not only breakthrough regarding the nature of motion and gravity, but also other vital early theories in optics and calculus, all of which made him a professor in Cambridge in 1667. [3]

For those who are fans of Carl Newport’s Deep work, this should not be a surprise. Quarantine is a great time for innovators to focus and explore. The usual daily interruptions/distractions in our personal and work lives are now significantly less due to quarantine. In contrary to our pre-COVID professional activities, a study has shown that meetings and group collaborations are not effective in encouraging innovation, rather alone time or working with one other person is more effective. [1] Drawing from personal examples, I have finally set up a podcast for 3DHEALS and hosted several webinars, discovering alternative, equally if not more effective communication methods to promote conversations in healthcare 3D printing and bioprinting space that I believe deserve an audience. I really enjoyed doing the interviews I conducted with our 3DHEALS2020 speakers, learning things I would not otherwise about their perspectives, life journeys, values to society. I also signed up for many online courses that I previously wish I could have time for, which includes several how to be on camera, CAD design, and 3D printing courses. If you are a student, as we all should be students for life, this is a great time to learn, think deeply, experiment, and innovate more.

Positive Messaging

Life is not easy in a pandemic. I often use the analogy of surfing (though admittedly a terrible surfer myself), as this is the time to hold your breath, stay low, stay deoxygenated, and wait for the big ugly wave to pass us by, uncertain when and how. However, the way communities, companies, and individuals came together around 3D printed solutions for this pandemic is lifting our moods in our often negativity-filled days. Among the daily numbers of infected and died, we are also sensing hope and relief when major manufacturers divert resources to 3D printed solutions, moving 3D printing towards mainstream manufacturing one step closer. These “quick wins” encourage innovations and inspire our next generation to learn, and therefore innovate more, in healthcare 3D printing. [4] These positive messages also allow more curiosities and re-evaluations from the world external to healthcare 3D printing, and perhaps a 10-20 years investment return is not such a bad deal if some of these technologies are the only life-savers in crisis, or even better, mechanisms that prevent another crisis.

Social Mission

Impact investing, social innovations, sustainability, environmental friendliness are not enemies of a healthy capitalistic society. They can co-exist with the right innovations, which require us to think with social impacts in mind. The current pandemic is certainly shifting individual and corporate behaviors, especially on their innovation focus. Not to be ageist, however, our interviews with various speakers, it is my observation that the term “sustainability” appears more in younger speakers. The next generation of CEOs, designers, engineers, and healthcare providers is already different from the previous generation, and this pandemic will surely inspire many to think of alternatives way of living and producing. Many of the crises today are results of bad planning and short-term vision of our past.  While many recent innovations in 3D printing focus on solving our immediate problems, like me, many are also thinking about what role 3D printing, and related technologies like bioprinting, tissue engineering, can play in healthcare post COVID19.  

Experimental Culture

In highly regulated industries like healthcare and manufacturing, implementing innovations often takes a long time. In this pandemic, however, previously more guarded organizations and companies in these industries are a lot more open to experimenting new solutions, vaccines, treatments, devices, and even business models. Within weeks, companies and organizations have opened up more direct communication channels with individual healthcare organizations and creative individuals online and offline to tackle COVID19 related unmet needs. Many of these channels did not exist before. The word “collaboration” becomes a lot more meaningful in this pandemic. I am hoping this open-mindedness to experiment with new ideas can stay with us even after this pandemic, as we are simply reacting to the virus. The big world-changing idea is more likely to come after this pandemic. [5]

There is also an acceleration to lowering regulatory barriers so that we can race against the virus more effectively as an emergency measure. I am not suggesting we should not have any regulation, but if we can find innovative ways to decrease the paper works and personnel involved without sacrificing safety and efficacy, why not? This is a great time to experiment at all levels of a government, society, and organization.

Therefore, this pandemic is certainly going to change our world and the future of healthcare 3D printing (and bioprinting). This is also a time for you to learn and think deeply, probably alone, what you want those changes to be.

“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”

― Viktor Emil Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


References:

1. Creativity Under the Gun

2. Innovation Loves Crisis

3. How Issac Newton Made Social Distancing Work for Him

4. The Value of Innovation at a Time of Crisis

5. Innovating During a Crisis

About the Author:

Hui Jenny Chen, M.D.

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Jenny Chen, MD, is currently the Founder and CEO of 3DHEALS, a company focusing on education and industrial research in the space of bioprinting, regenerative medicine, healthcare applications using 3D printing. She is trained as a neuroradiologist, Dr. Chen holds degrees in both medicine and radiology from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and completed fellowship training in neuroradiology at Harvard Medical School. She currently serves as Adjunct Clinical Faculty in neuroradiology at Stanford University Medical Center. With a focus on health technology, Dr. Chen also serves as a startup Mentor to IndieBio EU and French Tech Hub, tech accelerators that help IT and life science companies launch and expand their product offerings, identify customers, and manage operations. Her interests lie in the applications of emerging technologies (especially in the field of 3D printing and bioprinting), automated biology, and has a vision of a decentralized and personalized healthcare delivery system for our near future.

3D Printing Design for COVID-19 Show Notes and Recordings

The Agility of 3D Technology for Medical Institutions: In Time of A Pandemic

Webinar Recording: Can 3D Printing Save Us From COVID19 Crisis?

Not Another Podcast: The Lattice

Interview with Shannon Walters, Stanford 3D Lab (Video)

Interview with Stefan Leonhardt, Kumovis (Video and Podcast)

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