3D printing and the future of manufacturing post COVID-19

The on-demand, customizable, and localized manufacturing of product components facilitated by 3D printing has the potential to redefine manufacturing but there are certain technical, mechanical, and legal limitations that, unless addressed, would hinder its adoption on a broad scale.

COE-EDPCOE-EDP | Updated: 05-08-2020 10:40 IST | Created: 05-08-2020 10:40 IST
3D printing and the future of manufacturing post COVID-19
Representative Picture. Image Credit: Wikimedia

COVID-19 has exposed the limitations of traditional manufacturing supply chains when it comes to continuing 'business as usual' by quickly responding to major disruptions like the ongoing pandemic. The virus initially gripped China, which holds a leading position at the heart of global value chains, and halted much of industrial production, resulting in significant disruption to national and international trade flow. The initial slowdown in manufacturing activity and global trade created an acute shortage of essential supplies including medical supplies such as face shields, ventilators which are critical in the fight against this pandemic.

As COVID-19 and the strict containment measures have severely disrupted global manufacturing supply chains, the 3D printing industry is gaining momentum, owing to the timeliness, minimal human intervention, and affordability of the technology. 3D printing is an additive (adding multiple layers) manufacturing process that involves rapid prototyping and production of a three-dimensional (3D) solid object from a computer-aided design model. It is most commonly used in product prototyping and manufacturing of individual parts and is many times faster as compared to traditional techniques. Simply put, additive manufacturing technology allows for on-demand manufacturing of physical components within minutes to hours. It has been a lifesaver for many in the fight against the pandemic by supporting the on-demand production of critical medical supplies such as test swabs, medical equipment like ventilator components, and personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks and respirators' components. 

In the United Kingdom, 3DCrowdUK, a community of 3D printing volunteers are bridging the gaps in the traditional PPE supply chain. Within four months of its formation (March-June), the non-profit organization managed to deliver 200,000 face shields to the National Health Service (NHS) and frontline workers across the UK.

Similarly, Massachusetts-based 3D printing company, Formlabs, has been working with several healthcare systems, government agencies, and regulatory bodies to design, prototype, and clinically evaluate various items including swabs and test kits, respiratory masks, among others. In May 2020, the firm received emergency use authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to print Northwell Health's bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP) adapters. These 3D printed adapters which convert BiPAP machines into functional invasive mechanical ventilators are aiding hospitals in hard-hit cities in the United States.

HP, one of the largest 3D printing companies in the world, has collaborated across borders and industries to help deliver millions of critical 3D printed parts including face masks, face shields, mask adjusters, nasal swabs, hands-free door openers, and respirator parts in an effort to battle against this unprecedented situation.

The Volkswagen Group used 3D printing processes to produce and donate thousands of face shields and holders, masks, and items of medical equipment to frontline workers and hospitals in Germany. In collaboration with Airbus and the 3D printing network 'Mobility goes Additive', the group produced face shield holders. Joining the fight, Skoda Auto partnered with the Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics, and Cybernetics (CIIRC) at the Czech Technical University in Prague, to develop and implement a 3D printing process for the production of FFP3 respirators.

Materialise, a Belgium-based 3D printing company printed hands-free door opener in less than 24 hours. As COVID-19 can survive on surfaces for a longer time, the innovative product eliminates direct contact with a door handle and reduces the risk of contamination. The design is available online and anyone with access to a 3D printer can locally print the door opener. Materialise has developed several other innovative products including 3D-printed components to turn Scuba gear into oxygen masks to allow for air filtration and oxygen supply and a 3D-printed oxygen PEEP Mask to address the shortage of ventilators.

Hospitals in Italy, which was one of the hardest-hit countries by the pandemic, experienced a shortage of essential medical equipment for critical patients. In response, an engineering firm named Isinnova designed and printed 100 replacement valves, which connect patients to ventilators, in 24-hours. The cost to print these valves was only 2-3 euros per piece, much less than the one from original manufacturers.

Manufacturing post-COVID-19

From medical to automotive and consumer electronics, 3D printing technology is used in several industrial sectors. For instance, automotive manufacturer Volkswagen has been using additive manufacturing for several years to produce a large number of individual parts for its wide range of cars. The BMW Group, on the other hand, produced over 300,000 “printed” components in 2019 and aims to make the manufacture of components more efficient for series production and speed up development processes. Late last month, the automobile major opened a new €15 million facility (Additive Manufacturing Campus) in Munich, Germany for production, research, and training in 3D printing. US space agency NASA is also testing 3D printing technology for its In-Space Manufacturing (ISM) project that seeks to enable off-world manufacturing of spare parts, tools, and materials essentially on-demand during long-duration or extended space missions, thereby making them more independent of Earth.

Technology-enabled manufacturing processes like 3D printing not only expedite the design and production process of physical objects but also help shorten supply chains by localizing production. 3D printing is great for rapid prototyping, to make tweaks in design during the creation process and personalize products as per consumer requirements as opposed to conventional manufacturing techniques that do not offer the same speed and flexibility for making personalized products and design tweaks. Also, manufacturing with 3D printers helps improve warehouse management as it allows for on-demand production of goods so one doesn't have to worry about storing goods. This method can also minimize human intervention, which will be vital to implementing the new normal of social distancing in workplaces.

But despite all these advantages, 3D printing isn't a miracle solution for the manufacturing industry and hasn't been adopted at a large scale despite being available for several years due to limitations that include:

  • Material and size limitations: The material choices available for use with 3D printers are limited (plastic is the most preferred material) thereby limiting its industrial applications. In addition, the restricted build size (small chambers) which results in the production of only small objects is also a factor that drives resistance in manufacturers when it comes to making a switch from conventional manufacturing methods that enable the production of large objects whilst offering a wide range of material choices.
  • Volume limitations: Additive manufacturing is not a great option for mass production in comparison to traditional techniques like injection molding that are apt for large-scale production with great precision and details. This is one of the hurdles to mainstreaming 3D printing in high-volume industries.
  • Digital skills: 3D printing technology requires high skills and expertise for product prototyping, reverse engineering, and other processes involved in the production of an object.
  • High initial capital investment: Industrial 3D printing machines are costlier than comparable traditional techniques and materials used in manufacturing. 

As evident from the above challenges and limitations, additive manufacturing technology is not mature enough to be considered as a replacement for conventional techniques in the manufacturing industry. 3D printing can be used as a supportive rather than a fully-fledged manufacturing technique until all the challenges encountered in its use and widespread adoption are tackled.

It is worth noting that 3D printing technology has been around for many decades, but its potential is still unfolding. Earlier, it was used only for creating prototypes and now its use cases have expanded beyond that. In the coming years, further advances in 3D printing including in material choices and mass-production will drive its adoption rates and help it become mainstream in all the industries.

Legal and regulatory landscape

Although 3D printing is a promising technology for transforming manufacturing supply chains in the era of digitalization and automation, the legal and regulatory changes pertaining to its usage remain unanswered. Legal challenges including Intellectual property infringement, quality assurance, and public safety are hindering the widespread use of this potentially transformative technology.

However, the pandemic and the subsequent shortfall of essential supplies is shifting the legal landscape around 3D printing technology. In light of the ongoing emergency, authorities have temporarily relaxed some regulatory requirements for producing 3D-printed materials. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States has recognized the public use of 3D printing to assist in meeting the demand for certain products. In March 2020, FDA answered some frequently asked questions for entities 3D printing or purchasing devices, accessories, components, and/or parts during the COVID-19 emergency. It includes recommendations and technical considerations for 3D-printed devices, from the device stage to process validation and acceptance activities of finished devices. The FDA authorized an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for ventilators, ventilator tubing connectors, and ventilator accessories such as 3D-printed tubing connectors for multiplexing ventilator use.

The crisis could improve the regulatory environment as well as technical and mechanical aspects of 3D printing. Without stringent laws and regulations, the 3D printing technology, which basically involves copying and reproducing physical objects, can lead to the widespread violation of IPs including product copyrights, trademarks, patents, to name a few. For example, 3D-printed designs are often freely distributed online and anybody can print them, so who owns the product copyright? Also, if a copyrighted/patented product is digitally reproduced by owners of 3D printers, who will be liable for the consumer safety in case the latter sustains an injury from a defective product, those printing them, or the manufacturers of printers and other materials used in the product?  Another major concern is that 3D printing could lead to illegal production of dangerous weapons including plastic guns, knives, and other items that could cause irreparable harm to the public.

Thus, it's important to have a well-defined regulatory landscape to promote further development and widespread adoption of 3D printing technology without jeopardizing public safety and the IP rights of an individual or entity. 

VisionRI's Centre of Excellence on Emerging Development Perspectives (COE-EDP) aims to keep track of the transition trajectory of global development and works towards conceptualization, development, and mainstreaming of innovative developmental approaches, frameworks, and practices.

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