[Updating] Why we need ventilators and why it is so hard to make them

And how the industrial AM community can help by making parts, not systems

The main issue, as explained in a detailed New York Times article, is that, to put it plainly, “there aren’t enough ventilators to cope with the coronavirus“. The reason why there aren’t enough is that they are extremely difficult to produce and so it takes a long time, even for those companies that have been making these machines for decades. That’s why it’s not about making 3D printed ventilators but 3D printing parts to address ventilator supply chain issues.

Right now, the NYT reports that “while the acute shortages are global, not just in the United States, some European governments are deploying wartime-mobilization tactics to get factories churning out more ventilators — and to stop domestic companies from exporting them. In one dramatic example, the article cites Andreas Wieland, the chief executive of Hamilton Medical in Switzerland, one of the world’s largest makers of ventilators, who says that they are seeing the same desperate situation in Italy as they saw in China and are now starting to see in France. And while they are producing and shipping machines as fast as they can, when Italy ordered 4000, they were only able to deliver 400.

Ventilators, which deliver air to the lungs through a tube placed in the windpipe, are a crucial tool to keep COVID-19 patients alive, and computerized, bedside machines can cost as much as $50,000. Altogether most industrialized nations have several tens of thousands of ventilators in their hospitals. However, the risk is that hundreds of thousands will be needed.

A document published by OSCMS cites a 2009 survey indicating that US hospitals could use both existing machines and pull older devices from storage, as well as the 8,900 sitting in emergency stockpiles. This adds up to roughly 200,000 devices, but the number of available medical staff able to operate them at any one time would lower that number significantly. And some worse-case estimates show that more than 900,000 people could need ventilators, according to the American Hospital Association (ABC News, 3/14/20).

Companies that make ventilators include Hamilton Medical mentioned above as well as Dräger in Germany and Getinge in Sweden. In the US, there are giants like General Electric and Medtronic – as well as smaller firms such as Ventec – and they are scrambling to accelerate production but production involves hundreds of small parts produced by companies all over the world. Which brings us back to the issue of local vs global supply chains.

No type of company can switch production lines faster than additive manufacturing service providers. Not only that, but the kind of automation that only industrial additive manufacturing technologies can already provide today is of paramount importance at a time when people are asked to stay home and avoid social contacts as much as possible.

Additive manufacturing service providers need to connect with both ventilator manufacturers and governmental institutions that are leading the effort in converting production lines. 3dpbm has created a Forum section where industrial additive manufacturing companies are able to highlight their production capabilities and connect with institutions that need them.

In Europe CECIMO, as the European association for additive manufacturing, was requested by the European Commission to address its membership and query if it would be able to aid in producing equipment (for instance, valves or ventilators) that hospitals are lacking due to the COVID19 outbreak in Europe. However, from a regulatory point of view, it has been highlighted that some legal constraints can hamper the full implementation of such solutions. Member States should consider temporarily waiving some of the Medical Device Directive requirements for strategical goods during this period of crisis.

In this regard, CECIMO welcomed Commissioner Breton’s statement, claiming that the EC will facilitate all companies helping in this time, also protecting them from potential legal issues. The Commissioner also highlighted that technologies such as 3D printing should be included in the scope of a new fund aiming to sustain different sectors, such as healthcare, in this time of need.

If AM companies will be able to rapidly connect with manufacturers and scale up production of needed ventilator parts, the next challenge will be the need to produce and install more industrial additive manufacturing machines, which are also made of thousands of parts, and very complex and lengthy to make. These also rely, at least in part, on global supply chains. However, most industrial 3D printers are manufactured locally. Europe, North America, and Asia all have local 3D printer manufacturers and material manufacturers catering to the local markets. Some components, especially electronics, could be relying on global suppliers however intercontinental transportation has not been halted and electronic components can still be obtained. The same goes for materials. Material refinery into 3D printable form – filaments, powders, and resins – takes place locally, so that only the raw materials, in some cases, will need to be obtained from remote suppliers.

[Update 3-21-2020]

As reported by the Financial Times, three industrial consortia (one made up of aerospace companies led by Meggitt and two from the automotive sector steered respectively by Nissan and McLaren) are aiming to develop a basic ventilator prototype by next week. The target is to manufacture 5,000 ventilators as soon as possible, with a goal of a further 30,000 eventually. Manufacturing is expected to start within a month. The aerospace consortium includes GKN, Airbus, Thales and Renishaw, which makes medical devices, among other high-tech products. Meggitt makes oxygen systems for aircraft, while Airbus, Renishaw and GKN can bring their expertise in 3D printing for components.

[Update 3-24-2020]

A letter published by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides recommendations for health care providers and facilities, based on the recently issued guidance, regarding the use of devices with patients who develop respiratory compromise from COVID-19 or other respiratory disorders. These are important guidelines to follow in order to implement ventilator supply mitigation strategies in the US but can be useful for healthcare institutions, product suppliers and government institutions in other parts of the world affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Please add/discuss anything useful related to this in the dedicated forum.

Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst for leading US-firm SmarTech Analysis, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he Co-founded London-based 3dpbm. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites 3D Printing Media Network and Replicatore, as well as 3D Printing Business Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

Leave a Comment

View Comments

  • So, in a time of national emergency, the entire US manufacturing sector is *incapable* of scaling up production because it relies on parts being made in other countries (read China)?? I would be surprised if the British manufacturing sector was so feeble - although it seems to be the case. Why is it so hard to build capacity for producing the parts required?

    • Great point. I think there are two main issues to consider. One is the issue of global supply chains. And this is an issue for all countries, perhaps even less so for the US as it would be for the UK, since manufacturers of ventilators are present in the US and I am sure they can address supply chain issues. The other issue is that of urgency. Even in a non-emergency situation without disrupted supply chains, producing ventilators takes time and there is no time. If the infection peaks within the next month you need the ventilators now, not 100 days from now (which would still be a record time for scaling up production).

Recent Posts

Farsoon’s new FS621M metal AM system has a 1.1 m vertical axis

This week, the additive manufacturing industry carefully restarted its physical event calendar with the launch…

29 mins ago

Renishaw Solutions Center integrates TRACEam quality management

Renishaw Inc. Solutions Center USA has partnered with TRACEam, a provider of quality management tools…

1 hour ago

HEXR and EOS offer custom solution for 3D printed bike helmets

3D printing company EOS has been a critical partner over the years for London-based HEXR,…

4 hours ago

Realize Medical’s VR 3D modeling software integrates with Logitech stylus

Realize Medical, a Canadian VR-based medical 3D modeling company, has announced a new partnership with…

20 hours ago

CIA investment firm In-Q-Tel backs nTopology

Engineering software developer nTopology has entered into a partnership with In-Q-Tel, Inc. (IQT), a non-profit…

1 day ago

MX3D successfully installs 3D printed Robot Arm

MX3D, an Amsterdam-based company that has invented a large-format metal 3D printer, has made an…

1 day ago