Across the globe, millions of medical practitioners are faced with insurmountable challenges as Covid-19 cases continue to soar.
Not only are healthcare professionals responding to growing cases of the novel coronavirus in the U.S., but many are risking their well-being and personal safety due to severe shortages of equipment required to do their jobs safely and effectively.
A lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) like N95 face masks, respirators, and shields means many healthcare professionals have to use makeshift or the same gear for entire shifts – a practice that goes against guidance under normal circumstances. At the same time, hospitals are facing all-time high demands for ventilators and related components to treat critically ill patients with Covid-19 symptoms.
With the benefit of its efficiency, speed, and adaptability, the additive manufacturing (AM) industry has stepped in to help provide critical supplies during this unprecedented time. Across the globe, AM providers, consultants, and more are now working together to better equip those with 3D printing capabilities with the knowledge, tools, and resources needed to pivot operations and begin creating critical medical supplies.
We've seen competitors become allies, with the sector aligning its resources to produce PPE and solve supply chain interruptions. Though we still have a long road ahead in fighting the virus, the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be in closer view. Even so, while this new normal is not forever, the lessons we’re learning during this time will prove to be powerful for the manufacturing industry in the long-term once we are past this crucial time.
While it may not be another pandemic, a future disruption will happen. It is our responsibility to learn from the lessons presented by Covid-19, and to figure out how AM can help manufacturers work around supply chain disruptions to make sure critical products and goods can continue to be made for those who need them.
Implementing “local for local” to improve on-demand manufacturing
The current pandemic has disrupted traditional supply chains, limiting access to vital medical resources in a time of great need. From this breakdown in the traditional supply chain, “local for local” manufacturing has been extremely crucial for on-demand production. Hospitals’ needs vary greatly based on location, demographic, and even time of year. Equipment and supplies that a small hospital in Texas needs frequently may look incredibly different from what a large hospital in New York City needs on a day-to-day basis.
This crisis has shown us we must do better accounting for local needs, and to make sure we have the supply chain in place to address it. By potentially reducing multi-part components to a single printed object manufactured via a digital file – made where and when it's needed – organizations and healthcare professionals alike can streamline the process and avoid roadblocks in the future. Rather than hospitals ordering bulk items that sit in storage until a specific use is required, additive manufacturing allows parts and tools to be printed on-demand right when it’s needed. In addition to the healthcare industry, this type of model can be applied across the board in a variety of different industries that can use AM to manufacture parts on-demand, instead of those parts taking up valuable warehouse space and hospital capital.
Designing for a parallel use of subtractive and additive manufacturing
One of the main issues that has come to light throughout this pandemic has been the significant bottleneck when pivoting between subtractive and additive manufacturing. Generally, only one manufacturing method is challenged and tested in a device regulatory submission, which makes switching from one to the other more difficult and uncertain from a regulatory burden and a device efficacy perspective. Luckily, emergency use authorization and enforcement discretion have provided a platform to allow a quick ramp up of PPE production while minimizing risk. However, as we step out of the current crisis and back into our everyday lives, how can we implement the use of additive and subtractive manufacturing in synchronicity moving forward?
Enter the Digital Warehouse concept
The Digital Warehouse concept imagines a world that, regardless of the traditional way something is manufactured, multiple methods have already been cleared with the regulatory bodies to develop that specific part or product. With this concept, additive and subtractive work in parallel, and it becomes as easy as flipping the switch from one method to the other if a small or large supply issue arises.
Better determining where 3D printing fits in the manufacturing ecosystem
Additive manufacturing has proven to have a huge impact in quickly addressing PPE shortages due to its efficiency and adaptability. Still, this doesn’t necessarily mean we should be 3D printing ventilators and face shields long-term. AM undoubtedly has a vital role within larger manufacturing strategies alongside traditional techniques, like injection moulding, to optimize production. So how (and when) do you create the business case for 3D printing within the larger manufacturing ecosystem? This can be a difficult question to address, especially in this quickly evolving and improving industry. The good news is, many additive manufacturing experts, consultants and providers are working closely to develop realistic and over-arching cost models and analysis. Overall, these evaluations urge manufacturers to look at the full picture, not just the manufacturing cost, to make a true overarching business case. Start by going back to what the problem is and assess holistically how it will improve your supply chain, in terms of both short-term and long-term cost, quality, and safety. Ultimately, industrial 3D printing is proving essential during this time of great need, but it's more than a stopgap fix. AM can vastly improve the way we design, produce, distribute, and repair products on a large scale, and manufacturers must consider the technology as a long-term solution. It's up to everyone in our industry to use the lessons we've learned to proactively – and permanently – address the issues at the root of the ongoing supply-and-demand crisis.