In the very first days of the COVID-19 emergency in Europe, 3dpbm connected with the team at HP evaluating possible responses. At the time HP was working on just two medically validated devices: the Materialise hands-free door opener and a surgical mask fitter. Since then, Fabio Annunziata, who during “peacetime” heads Strategy and Planning for HP 3D Printing and Digital Manufacturing business, built an internal team and coordinated with HP centers and customers around Europe and North America to 3D print and deliver to hospitals over a million protection devices. Healthcare professionals were able to use these 3D printed devices to defend themselves against the virus during exhausting shifts attending to COVID-19 patients. We caught up with Fabio to understand the challenges associated with this effort and what it means for the 3D printing industry as a whole.
“It all started just a few weeks ago,” Annunziata tells 3dpbm. “As an Italian, living and working in Spain, who has a lot of connections in the US, three of the most affected countries, I felt very much involved from the very beginning. In just a few days we had over 1,000 3D printed parts delivered to hospitals from HP’s 3D R&D centers in Barcelona, Spain; Corvallis, Oregon; San Diego, California; and Vancouver, Washington. Our HP centers have been working with partners across the globe to meet the production needs of hospitals in this time of crisis.”
These initial applications, which were and still are being validated and finalized for industrial production, include face masks, face shields, mask adjusters, nasal swabs, hands-free door openers and respirator parts. The company is also in conversation with government, health and industry agencies in various countries to facilitate a well-coordinated approach to producing and delivering these devices.
“We continue to work directly with many different hospitals, trying to understand their real requirements,” Annunziata tells us. “Sant Pau Hospital here in Barcelona, for example, was among the first to request face shields and we have 3D printed as many as 200,000 of those since then. Altogether, HP and its partners have 3D printed over a million parts for COVID-19 protection using HP’s multi jet fusion technology.”
The list of partners who have collaborated in this enormous effort include large firms who have adopted HP technology, such as several large automakers (including Lamborghini, Volkswagen-Seat, Ferrari, Skoda and many more) as well as 3D printing service providers in Italy and Spain, at first, and then also in the U.S., France, Canada, Germany and many other countries.
“One thing that really surprised me is the speed at which our customers and partners activated themselves and we were able to take an idea and develop it into a finished product,” Fabio remembers. “First it was the face shields but then much more complex parts such as respirator valves and connectors. One such device that we were able to produce is a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure), which basically increases the patients’ oxygen absorption capacity.”
This Mask Cross-connector was designed by the Spanish engineer D. Luis Miguel Peñalver in collaboration with the director of the Little Devices Lab at MIT in Boston and founder of the MakerHealth system, Jose Gómez Márquez; under the supervision of Dr. Jose Andres Cambronero Galache, intensivist doctor (retired head of the ICU service at the U. Príncipe de Asturias Hospital and the ICU Nursing staff of the Hospital de Alcalá de Henares). Another similar device is the Cressi CPAP Mask Connector, which was adapted to a full-face diving mask by group of healthcare professionals from the Consorci Corporació Sanitària Parc Taulí hospital and 3DPTLab.
“Working together with local agencies has been fundamental to create parts and products that we had no prior experience with,” Annunziata explains. “Our partners were able to learn, adapt and change their production lines at an incredible rate. Smile Direct switched from producing dental models to making thousands of face shields by simply dedicating part of its 3D printers to producing these new parts.”
One interesting consideration is that, while an injection mold can enable the rapid production of millions of parts, producing the initial mold requires a long time. A few weeks or even days could make a big difference during a fast-moving emergency. With 3D printing, on the other hand, production can start right away, something that was unimaginable just a few years ago.
Annunziata agrees: “There are several governmental agencies that are now considering this modality as a valid alternative for strategic production. The ability to print millions of masks, face shields and test swabs demonstrated that 3D printing is a true production-ready solution that can support strained supply chains”.
However, producing medical emergency devices is not as streamlined as it may seem. There are several challenges in terms of understanding what is really needed, certifying the parts for use in hospitals and on patients. “Obtaining the necessary certifications was a real challenge and we were able to do this in a very short time only because the COVID-19 emergency created a situation of extreme necessity. In addition, the 3D printed components is often just one part of a whole. We had to learn and integrate many traditional assembly processes for the shields or for electronic components and we built a network among many different types of companies.”
From an industry point of view, another issue that – as industry media – we need to consider is who pays for the large quantities of 3D printable materials, human resources and machine time required in this effort. Sometimes this aspect is underestimated, as people’s health takes priority on economics assessments, but the truth is that nothing can be produced for free.
“HP mobilized employee time, expertise, materials and resources to participate in a collective effort to slow the spread of the Pandemic and help the heroes on the front lines,” Annunziata says. “Many of our partners, especially the larger companies, were also able to donate their resources. However, many of the smaller firms who provide services and wanted to help could have benefited from a coordinated institutional effort that could have helped cover the costs.”
As CECIMO the European association of AM companies, explained in 3dpbm’s exclusive interview last month, institutions should act to support companies who are able to provide relief. “It’s not just a matter of costs. Annunziata emphasizes, “One of the biggest problems we had to face was the lack of centralized institutional coordination, both on a national and European level. In some countries we[AF1] had to fill in for that role, coordinating between hospitals and parts providers, taking orders from healthcare institutions and turning them over to those that had production capacity. We were able to do a lot but with greater institutional support we could have done more.”
The increased visibility and awareness that 3D printing received in global media for its support during the emergency could also mean that institutions are going to be much more aware of this possibility in the future. Annunziata also explained to 3dpbm that some of the companies producing medical-grade professional ventilators have considered using 3D printing to rapidly scale up their production capabilities. This could indicate a bright future for 3D printing companies in the face of inevitable supply-chain disruptions.
“This is a true watershed moment for the industry. The benefits of 3D printing are being seen around the world and we have an opportunity to accelerate industries such as automotive,” Annunziata concludes. “This crisis has demonstrated the need for more sustainable production for both people and the environment: 3D printing can go a long way in addressing this new reality.”