3D printing in a time of coronavirus

Since the beginning of the UK lockdown at the end of March, you will probably have seen 3D printing come up on the news headlines more frequently than before.

Headlines like this one from the BBC “Coronavirus: Can we 3D-print our way out of the PPE shortage?” have bought the subject of 3D printing into everyone’s homes as the nation rushed to help do their bit for the crisis.


PPE printing
All over the country those companies, schools, and universities with access to 3D printers – and, of course, the relevant materials – became part of something referred to as the “citizen supply chain”, making PPE for the NHS. Face shields and small plastic bands to help ease the discomfort of surgical mask elastic on the ears were produced by countless groups across the country. This hive of activity of course came with a warning. Nothing that was manufactured in this way carried the CE kitemark, meaning that there was no quality benchmark put on the items, they could not be sold, and clear guidelines advising that they should only be used once were issued.

At a time when most NHS trusts were advising that PPE was at critically low levels, these 3D printed versions were seen as a life-line and were distributed to GP surgeries, social workers and carers, rather than those on the front line in COVID wards. They offered a supply that was needed in a time of crisis and showed just how useful 3D printing can be.

Solving Supply Chain Problems Locally
While some of the shortage can be attributed to the fact that more medical staff in hospitals were moved to COVID wards, requiring multiple changes of PPE every day, the supply chain was also part of the issue. With PPE being ordered in from all over the world, and, of course, being needed by other counties at the height of their own outbreaks, the supply chain was stretched to breaking point. Manufacturing in countries like China, who are the biggest manufacturers of PPE, was put on hold so as the demand for supply grew all over the world there was simply not enough to go around. This paved the way for 3D printing to step forward.

3D powered testing
3D printing’s usefulness does not stop with the manufacture of PPE either, although of course this is the most publicised aspect of 3D printing during the pandemic. At one University in Denmark, a team of engineers have developed, using 3D printing, a robot with the capability of performing COVID-19 throat swab tests without the need for any contact with another human. The robot, which has been produced using only 3D printing, uses a 3D printed tool, (which is disposable) to hold a swab which it then uses to take a sample. The swab is transferred to a glass tube and the lid fastened. Whilst this is great news for testing for the current virus, it also has huge potential for the future when it could be used for testing for other viruses as well. There is also potential for mass screening in the aviation industry or at border control. The technology is already in place; now all that is needed is to work out how best to use it.

3D printing the way forward
If this crisis has taught us one thing about 3D printing it should be that it is capable of a lot more than the public in general realise. For some this might be a frightening concept, the idea of robots carrying out tests, but it really should not be. As we move forward it would seem like 3D printing has truly come into its own during the pandemic.