The Role of Additive Manufacturing During a Pandemic

Elen Parry is currently studying her PhD in biomedical engineering, Elen’s focus is on using digital processes to innovate medical devices and daily living aids. Recently, publishing a paper on the UK Additive Manufacturing community’s response to COVID-19 in the Journal of 3D Printing in Medicine.

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PPE manufactured on an Ultimaker S5 3D Printer

PPE manufactured on an Ultimaker S5 3D Printer

CREATE Education Ambassador Elen Parry is currently studying her PhD in biomedical engineering, Elen’s focus is on using digital processes to innovate medical devices and daily living aids. Elen Parry

Late last year, collaborating with Craig Banks from CREATE Education Hub Manchester Metropolitan University they published a paper on the UK Additive Manufacturing community’s response to COVID-19 in the Journal of 3D Printing in Medicine.

The Role of Additive Manufacturing During a Global Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opening for Additive Manufacturing (AM) to demonstrate its potential, where reduced lead-times are required, and supply chain gaps are presented. A more realistic vision for AM has been demonstrated and the concerns relating to widespread AM use in healthcare have been highlighted. Through seeing the benefits, many companies are expected to reconsider adopting AM technologies as part of their day-to-day operations, not necessarily to replace their conventional methods but to support and enhance conventional methods. Wider use of digital integrated supply networks is expected, as well as heightened demand for clarified legislation and official guidance around AM adoption and good practice.

Manufacturing Flexibility

Extreme shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical equipment (ME) meant a new approach to meet demand was vital. Additive manufacturing is a term for a group of fabrication techniques which builds parts by adding material layer-by-layer until a part is fully formed. The additive nature of the process allows for the fabrication of complex geometry, which unlike traditional subtractive manufacturing methods, do not require specialist tooling. As a result, production can switch from one part to another almost instantly, which has been demonstrated by those with AM capabilities producing products on demand.

Photocentric 3D Printed Respirator Valves


Copper 3D Nanohack


Increased Accessibility

More recent democratisation of AM has seen the technology increasingly present in universities, schools, makerspaces and for many enthusiasts, in their homes. Together, this widespread community of AM users formed a response network to contribute to the PPE and ME relief effort, by manufacturing devices on their 3D printers. These often-collaborative efforts are being referred to as a ‘citizen supply chain’. The AM community have actively shared designs, digital files and knowledge through digital networks making it easy for anyone with access to a 3D printer to contribute. The citizen supply chain has been supported by larger companies in the AM industry, including Prusa® (Prague, Czech Republic) and Copper 3D® (Santiago, Chile). A widely discussed Prusa face shield design was published on 18 March 2020 and as of 30 April 30 2020, it had been downloaded approximately 200,000-times, with community users being encouraged to improve the design. 

Similarly, Copper 3D encouraged community collaboration to improve the design of their ‘Nanohack’ mask, which is an open-source antimicrobial face mask. Copper 3D are part of the Ultimaker Material Alliance – a global partnership programme between Ultimaker and 3D printing material companies. Through the Material Alliance organisations using 3D printing can choose from over 150 material options giving them access to advanced filaments. For manufacturing, the Material Alliance is especially good for industrial-grade solutions by offering materials that have the properties needed for specific applications including antibacterial, ESD, flame retardant and flexible. Having such a versatile range of materials means that users have numerous options to produce the part required.

Social media, coupled with increased accessibility to AM facilities, is believed to be a key driver of the overwhelming response from the AM community. A study reviewed the impact of Social Media (SM) during the COVID-19 AM response between 1 January 2020 and 14 April 2020 through utilising SM listing software to explore keywords relating to AM, PPE and ME. The study presented an approximate total reach of 7.2 billion SM responses with more than 18,000 individuals from 36 countries contributing to the AM effort for COVID-19.

Localised Manufacture

With such a wide contribution, the citizen supply chain is naturally decentralised and is operating across the globe through a digital connection. Decentralised manufacturing generally offers some protection against external disruption and the delays seen in centralised manufacturing models by utilising shorter and more direct supply chains, in turn allowing for faster acquisition of essential products and components. By operating locally, manufacturers can improve their responsiveness and directly supply-demand by reducing supply chain complexities. Positive outcomes of localised manufacture include reduced lead times and, in some cases, lower costs, however, concerns have been raised around reputation and regulation.

The COVID-19 response effort saw individuals and organisations supplying their local hospitals, care homes, shops and schools with PPE when it could not be sourced through standard procurement routes. This model continued by many until conventional manufacturing processes recovered from disruption and were able to catch up and meet demand.

Prusa 3D Printed Face Shield Design


Armie Hands-Free Door Opener


Reduced Time-to-Market

As well as many changing their production lines to meet current needs, additional benefits of AM such as reducing time-to-market have been demonstrated. Companies have worked to quickly release certified medical devices (MD) and ME. Examples include Resolution Medical® (MN, USA), who developed US FDA approved lattice swabs using Carbon™ AM technology.

CREATE Education would like to thank Elen Parry for contributing to this blog.

Read the full article in Future Medicine.

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