How Additive Manufacturing Saved Lives During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Clare Scott

Although COVID-19 is still in existence, the world is slowly getting back to normal after the worst of the pandemic. Many lives were saved thanks to dedicated medical professionals – and additive manufacturing. AM may be the unsung hero of the pandemic, as it quickly came to the rescue when supplies were desperately needed. From face shields to respirators, AM was used to rapidly and inexpensively create lifesaving equipment.

One of the issues early in the pandemic was a shortage of nasal swabs used to test for COVID-19. Carbon and Formlabs, using vat photopolymerization technology, quickly stepped in and began 3D printing swabs, producing up to 150,000 per day. The availability of nasal swabs was instrumental in preventing the spread of the disease, allowing new cases to be diagnosed right away.

3D-printed nasal swabs, courtesy of Formlabs

Just about everyone is likely an expert in using nasal swabs to test for COVID-19 now, but that wasn’t the case at the start of the pandemic. Medical professionals needed to be trained quickly in how to effectively swab patients. AM has been used for years to create anatomical models for practice procedures, and it was quickly adapted for COVID-19, being used to produce medical manikins after it was found that existing manikins lacked representative features for proper swabbing.

Personal protective equipment, or PPE, was also in short supply in the early days of COVID-19. Medical professionals in particular were in dire need of PPE such as masks and face shields. The open-source maker community, along with some AM companies, stepped up by 3D printing face shields. Many of them used an open-source design provided by Prusa.

AM was found to be an efficient solution for producing respirators and respirator valves, which, due to the overwhelming number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19, were running low. AM’s ability to rapidly fabricate these items resulted in hundreds of respirators and thousands of valves being produced per week.

Even face masks were improved by AM. Throughout the pandemic, advice varied on which types of face masks were the most effective. Cloth masks were considered sufficient in the early days, but were eventually found to provide minimal protection, with paper surgical masks then being favored. Later, N95 masks were considered the best option. Despite all recommendations, however, masks could still be ill-fitting. WASP tackled that challenge with its 3D-printed custom face masks, designed based on a scan of the wearer’s face. The masks even included replaceable 3D-printed filters. WASP released the designs as open-source files.

Custom 3D-printed face mask, courtesy of WASP

Even additive construction played a role in preventing the spread of COVID-19. In China, AC company Winsun used AM to produce concrete isolation rooms for COVID-19 patients as hospitals quickly became overloaded. Each of the rooms was constructed in under two hours.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a tragedy that claimed far too many lives. However, many more lives likely would have been lost without the contributions of AM. Both AM companies and the maker community came together to create much-needed supplies as quickly as possible, which is a testament to not only the power and versatility of the technology but the dedication of those in the AM community.


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