In the span of weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended life around the world, and its impact grows more severe with each passing day. The swiftness and pervasiveness of the disruption is unparalleled in modern history, as entire economies grind to a halt in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Societies have been forced to quickly adapt to the disruption, in many cases turning to technologies that have long been hailed for disruptive potential of their own.
In the supply chain, additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing, is finally having its moment.
Across industries, supply chains have been hit hard as factories shut down or limit production. However, none has been strained more than the medical supply chain, as demand soars for protective equipment like masks and gloves, as well as for critical life-saving equipment such as ventilators. Hospitals will likely soon be overwhelmed, with capacity and supplies pushed to their limits. In the face of this unprecedented challenge, additive manufacturing has stepped in to fill the gap.
When suppliers couldn’t meet the surging demand for life-saving ventilator valves, a hospital in Brescia, one of the hardest hit regions in Northern Italy, turned to additive manufacturing. Working closely with local firms Issinova, Lonati SpA, and The FabLab, the hospital was able to reverse-engineer the ventilator valve design. Within six hours, it was 3-D printing new valves on site, and saving lives.
In the weeks since, 3-D printers around the world have been humming to keep hospitals supplied. Providers like Formlabs and MatterHackers have set up online hubs to connect hospitals with customers willing to share their 3-D printers. Companies from SmileDirectClub to Volkswagen have volunteered their additive manufacturing capabilities to supply critical protective equipment and ventilator parts. Meanwhile, a growing online community of makers is sharing CAD designs and ideas to respond to the pandemic.
One of these initiatives I’m personally supporting is MasksOn, which aims to provide 50,000 reusable and sanitizable face masks for clinicians in high-risk settings. The initiative is converting full-face snorkel masks into reusable face shields, using 3-D printing to mass produce medical-grade breathing filter adapters. (A full list of 3-D printing community resources and projects dedicated to the COVID-19 pandemic can be found here.)
The response of the additive manufacturing community in this crisis has been inspiring. What the pandemic has revealed, however, is the underlying vulnerability of globalized supply chains. Organizations have been forced to rethink their dependency on distant or overseas suppliers.
Although 3-D printing isn’t yet available at a scale to support localized manufacturing for everything, the early results of the pandemic response point to a promising future. Could the pandemic be a catalyst for a widespread shift to additive manufacturing in the supply chain?
Here’s what the future could hold:
On-demand, Onsite, and Just in Time
Supply-chain disruptions aren’t limited to pandemics. Natural disasters, trade policies, and labor strikes can all interrupt the flow of supplies, delaying critical operations. Additive manufacturing can fill the gap by printing parts on demand and, as the Brescian hospital shows, onsite. In turn, operational disruptions can be shortened or eliminated by circumventing overseas production and shipping.
Consider a pipeline breaking on a deepsea oil rig. Waiting for a replacement part could take days, idling operations on the rig and putting revenue on hold. With a 3-D printer, engineers on the rig could quickly engineer and print a patch clamp and get back to pumping while they wait for the supplier to ship a long-term replacement.
In Brescia, the makers who reverse-engineered the ventilator valves for additive manufacturing are now facing a potential lawsuit from the hospital’s original supplier of ventilator valves over patent infringement. To mitigate intellectual property disputes in the future, manufacturers could license their designs to their customers so they can print replacement parts locally to fill unforeseen gaps in supply. This would in turn drive savings for the manufacturer, as they “outsource” their manufacturing costs to the customer.
As the 3-D printed ventilator valves in Brescia illustrated, it’s possible for engineers with little to no experience designing a particular part to quickly engineer a functional design and create it with additive manufacturing. Unlike other fabrication techniques, the flexibility of additive manufacturing means that engineers and designers don’t need years of experience tailoring their designs for the constraints of manufacturability.
Additive’s empowerment of inexperienced designers will be taken further by generative design, also known as AI-assisted design. Today’s software can automatically optimize for different manufacturing techniques, cutting the time between design and manufacturing. Optimizing designs for additive manufacturing will be particularly valuable not only for the supply-chain implications, but also because it can unlock better designs.
Generative AI runs thousands of simulations to find the best and most efficient designs that meet all the designer’s goals and constraints, optimizing for things like weight, strength, thermal properties, and fluid dynamics. In most cases, the results involve complex, organic geometries, unlike the rigid straight lines and polyhedra toward which that human designers gravitate. As it turns out, these organic, irregular forms can be most effectively created by additive manufacturing.
Another advantage of generative design is the ability to consolidate designs of assemblies made up of multiple components, which can then be printed with additive manufacturing. Instead of having a distributed supply chain for parts and assembling in-house, the entire assembly could be printed onsite.
Part consolidation can drive significant savings for manufacturers. In contrast to subtractive manufacturing, additive manufacturing only uses the material necessary for the design, reducing waste and material costs. The cost of shipping parts is also eliminated, and assembly costs are reduced, as there are fewer parts to assemble.
The consolidation of complex assemblies could be especially valuable for some critical lifesaving equipment that will be in short supply during the pandemic. There are already engineers working on new designs to meet the surging demand. The CoVent-19 Challenge is crowdsourcing efforts to develop innovative, rapidly deployable ventilators to increase hospitals’ capacity to manage the deluge of patients struggling to breathe.
Jesse Coors-Blankenship is senior vice president of advanced development at PTC.
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