With the COVID-19 pandemic spreading all over the globe, countries are battling with a shortage in the supply of medical and industrial equipment needed to combat the ravaging effects of this novel virus. As world powers, industry giants and start-ups are working via emergency channels to deal with this pandemic; the 3D printing community is not left out.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, 3D technology start-ups, equipment manufacturers, and designers are sharing designs and working with different health sectors to provide lifesaving equipment and medical supplies that can be quickly produced. It is riveting to see how the 3D printing community all over the globe are offering their support to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Companies such as HP, SelfCAD, Stratasys, Formlabs, NASCAR, etc., as well as their customers, have put their ideas and machinery to work in entirely new ways. However, this crisis is not only revealing how 3D printing has rallied to help. Sadly, this crisis is not only showing how the 3D printing community has rallied to help. We are seeing the challenges and possible long term impact of COVID-19 on some areas worth learning about in the 3D printing industry.
Collaborative Efforts and Increase in the Volume of Manufacturing Technology
The impact of COVID-19 is proving that the 3D printing industry can indeed be used in high volume manufacturing. We have seen hospitals and businesses all over the world struggle, as supply chains have been disrupted because most of these countries are highly interdependent. The challenges of the border and factory closures due to social distancing practices have significantly affected the supply of goods and services.
However, with companies like SelfCAD, making it easy to create and share 3D designs, 3D printing has become a valuable resource for emergency production of needed parts. Thus far, 3D tech is used to produce medical equipment test swabs, facemasks, ventilator valves, safety goggles, and other protective gear. Also, the production of industrial goods like spare parts and molds have not been left out.
Besides the collaborative efforts from the 3D community and consumers alike, the volume of some equipment being produced with 3D printing has been mind-blowing. Take, for instance, US-based company, Formlabs has stationed over 250 of its 3D printers to produce up to 150,000 COVID-19 test swabs devices for collecting samples for COVID-19 testing per day.
Additionally, with companies such as Stereolithography and Powder Bed Fusion producing thousands of 3D-printed parts in a limited time frame. It only goes to show that 3D printing is not only meant for low volume manufacturing.
Challenges Posed by Standardisation and Certification of 3D Printing
Another impact of COVID-19 on 3D printing we have seen is in the area of standardized policies and uniform certification. Presently, we have seen that the lack of standards in some cases makes it extremely difficult to adopt 3D printing for industries like the health sector. Even as 3D communities rally to give support, some of these efforts are marred by a lack of standard regulations.
For instance, sterilization techniques and material compatibility become an issue if the production environment isn’t conducive. Uncertainty arises as to the kind of interactions these materials might have with other devices and chemicals and likewise contact with patients and care providers when printed in varying environments.
Thus the guidelines for selecting the right material for medical equipment need to be specified. In addition, most of the medical kits to be printed require impute and approval from medical personnel to ensure they are fit for purpose. So far, considerable efforts have been made by US government agencies such as the FDA to set up a response to COVID-19 via public-private collaborations on regulation and approval of material and certification for PPEs and other medical equipment.
Besides, if we are thinking long term of introducing more 3D-printed products into health centers and more broadly across different industries, then there’s a need to fast-track the procedures for 3D printing standards and certification. These collaborations and regulations will not only bring about the necessary 3D printing standards and certifications but will also immensely contribute to the growth of the industry.
Intellectual Property Challenges of 3D Printing Design Production
The issues surrounding intellectual property (IP) and patent laws in 3D printing have been brought to the forefront as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although a lot of industries stand to benefit from 3D design sharing and distribution, most parties involved may not be aware of the legal implication that can arise.
Some 3D-printed products are patent-free, while others happen to be reproductions that are already protected. For example, in Europe, 3D-printing companies who want to provide products to buyers at short notice are, however, battling with the dilemma of breaching EC regulations. In response to their fears, the European Commissioner Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Marks, stated that the EC aims to help out companies responding to the outbreak by protecting them from potential legal issues.
Currently, the European Commission is pushing out regulations that are bound to cause a lasting impact on 3D printing post-COVID-19. The EC isn’t only facilitating communication between 3D creators and consumers of medical equipment. It is also working to smooth out the regulations to allow printers to make designs without infringing any intellectual property rules.
Additionally, the most commonly found 3D models are copyrighted without attributing the designers. What you have here is an agreement stating the extent to which a printer can modify or make use of a 3D model created by someone else. During this pandemic, most of these models can be downloaded and used solely for the benefit of combating the virus and not for monetary gains.
Thus, moving forward, these agreements should clearly state liability, use of designs during an emergency, and what happens to products that precede the crisis, etc. For instance, 3D designers can get custom writing review services from websites such as Best Writers Online to help craft the terms and conditions for the use of their designs during the COVID-19 crisis.
3D Printing Cannot Do It All, Just Yet
Although the opportunities the 3D printing community has provided the manufacturing sector with have been highly impressive, they are not yet at a point, where they can offer solutions to replace all manufacturing technologies. For example, using 3D printing for specific medical applications has proven to be a concern in the areas of biocompatibility and sterilization of parts. These parts need to be sterilized in high temperatures and pressures, which is something most 3D printing materials can’t withstand.
Thus, for the time being, traditional processes will still be the most ideal for high-volume production. However, the prospect of 3D printing evolving as a highly flexible and on-demand solution for bulk and remote manufacturing is an exciting one to watch.
As we navigate through the COVID-19 epidemic, it is crucial to think of situations in the future that will be out of our control and think of ways to handle them. Will investing more in 3D printing be a good idea? I believe the answer is a resounding, yes! This is because the 3D printing community has provided quick-turn solutions worldwide and has also shown the potential to help businesses mitigate future risks.