Many have been asking what the implications of the current Covid-19 pandemic are going to be on additive manufacturing as an industry. The relationship between coronavirus and 3D printing is not entirely clear, mostly because we are very far from understanding what the long, medium and even short terms implications of the pandemic are going to be on global supply chains.
Additive manufacturing may be able to play a role in helping to support industrial supply chains that are affected by limitations on traditional production and imports. One thing is for sure though: 3D printing can have an immediate beneficial effect when the supply chain is completely broken. That was, fortunately, the case when a Northern Italian hospital needed a replacement valve for a reanimation device and the supplier had run out with no way to get more in a short time.
One of the biggest immediate problems that coronavirus is causing is the massive number of people who require intensive care and oxygenation in order to live through the infection long enough for their antibodies to fight it. This means that the only way to save lives at this point – beyond prevention – is to have as many working reanimation machines as possible. And when they break down, maybe 3D printing can help.
Massimo Temporelli, founder of The FabLab in Milan and a very active and popular promoter of Industry 4.0 and 3D printing in Italy, reported early on Friday 13th that he was contacted by Nunzia Vallini, editor of the Giornale di Brescia, with whom he has been collaborating for several years for the dissemination of Industry 4.0 culture in schools.
She explained that the hospital in Brescia (near one of the hardest-hit regions for coronavirus infections) urgently needed valves (in the photo) for an intensive care device and that the supplier could not provide them in a short time. Running out of the valves would have been dramatic and some people might have lost their lives. So she asked if it would be possible to 3D print them
After several phone calls to fablabs and companies in Milan and Brescia and then, fortunately, a company in the area, Isinnova, responded to this call for help through its Founder & CEO Cristian Fracassi, who brought a 3D printer directly to the hospital and, in just a few hours, redesigned and then produced the missing piece.
On the evening of Saturday 14th (the next day) Massimo reported that “the system works”. At the time of writing, 10 patients are accompanied in breathing by a machine that uses a 3D printed valve. As the virus inevitably continues to spread worldwide and breaks supply chains, 3D printers – through people’s ingenuity and design abilities – can definitely lend a helping hand. Or valve, or protective gear, or masks, or anything you will need and can’t get from your usual supplier.
[Update 15-3-2020] After the first valves were 3D printed using a filament extrusion system, on location at the hospital, more valves were later 3D printed by another local firm, Lonati SpA, using a polymer laser powder bed fusion process (photo below).