What is the Truth Behind the Perceived Potential Risks of 3D Printing Medical Equipment for COVID-19 Pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has created for us an urgent situational need that calls for our immediate attention and action and that is to come up with an array of specialized medical and health care products. In a scramble to meet this growing demand for PPEs or personal protective equipment, local and international manufacturers have turned their eyes to 3D printing in a desperate attempt to address this billowing shortfalls.  

We have reached the time and age when 3D printer machines are not uncommon any more. As a matter of fact here in the country alone, around 3% of Australian households have their very own 3D printer machine. Besides, educational institutions like elementary schools, universities, and the majority of public libraries in the country have their own respective 3D printer units. Community mark spaces and private businesses also have their own 3D printers.  

PPE mask

Australian health authorities recently reported that from March to the early part of April, medical staff in hospitals across the country are left with not much of a choice but to reuse the PPEs supplied to them. They also added that many healthcare workers in the country are forced to source the PPE supplies they will use from hardware stores. 

The situation described above is happening due to the diminishing supply of PPEs in the country and around the world. Fortunately, things have begun to pick for 3-dimensional printing or additive manufacturing. It is proving itself as the more nimble and highly adaptable manufacturing style that can be taken advantage of during this time of pandemic.

But there is one setback to it, 3D printing is not highly recommended for projects that involve the production of an item in great numbers. 

Given the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy for anyone to think that having some kind of medical equipment and proper PPEs would be a lot better than none.  

But with respect to the TGA or Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration, the country’s medical products regulating body, has yet to make an endorsement of specific 3D printed emergency items for COVID-19 pandemic application. Medical manufacturing companies that are registered with the TGA can process an application for this.  

3-dimensional printing allows for the creation of unique and specialized on-demand product items using a process that industry insiders refer to as “distributed manufacturing”. However, when you employ 3D printing to mass-produce medical equipment and like items, in complete contrast to other more popular mass-production methods, it is comparatively very slow. 

There are several kinds of face masks and face shields that will take more time to print using a standard 3D printer. Comparing this approach to the “injection moulding” process, mass production will be completed in a couple of minutes only.  

In spite of that, 3D printing offers a greater level of flexibility. Hence, 3D machine owners/operators have the liberty to produce just the right amount/number of PPEs required in their communities. If you are designing PPEs, 3-dimensional printing makes room for needed improvement over time, and with each update that you make, your product offering will get better each time. 

For instance, if you are familiar with the Prusa face shield, which was designed and developed in the Czech Republic, it has been 3D printed a hundred thousand times already. And as of this writing, It has reached its third iteration, which is 2 times as fast to print the previous version.