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Scores of companies, volunteer organizations and tech-focused collectives have been nimbly designing schematics for anyone to print up items like ventilator parts and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) like masks. These designs could prove to be vital as the health crisis in the U.S. begins its second month.
“Five years ago, 3D printers were much more expensive than they are today for the same capability,” Thomas Reed, owner of Altavian, a Florida-based drone manufacturing company, told Fox News. “There are still limitations, but in terms of speed and getting a working solution out to the community, it fills that gap.”
Reed’s Altavian normally focuses on building geospatial drones used for ecologic service by the Army Corps of Engineers as well as supplying drones and other supporting equipment to the U.S. military. Since the pandemic began, the company has assisted local area hospitals in quickly designing PPE for their health care workers.
“One of our employees has a has a wife who works at [North Florida Regional Medical Hospital] in the ER and they came to us with the idea of 3D printing a mask,” he said. “We found one of the open-source designs and utilizing filter material that a doctor at UF [University of Florida] had come across as a good substitute for the N95 mask.”
The design employs the use of a surgical wrap called Halyard H600, which is believed to be more effective than N-95 masks in blocking out virus droplets and can even be sterilized through an autoclaving process, making them reusable.
“We were able to prototype, you know, kind of initial design, get their feedback, go through the standard-fit testing process and then kind of quickly over about a week's timeframe, iterate multiple revisions of the design to where it was compatible with this new filter material that they want to use and a kind of a prototype or a solution that they wanted to stock across the hospital,” Reed said, adding that they’ve had other hospitals throughout the South East contact them for mask solutions.
His company Altavian has developed a new nonprofit group, American Mask Rally, to meet the demand.
As the country's supply chain becomes taxed, 3D printing or additive manufacturing, which has long been touted as the future of fabrication, is being put to the test as the demand for open-sourced schematics and designs has risen during the pandemic.
"There are a few different places where we see additive manufacturing or 3D printing helping support supply chain shortages right now, and it's primarily around PPE," John Wilczynski, executive director of America Makes, a nonprofit think-tank focusing on additive manufacturing, told Fox News. “Face shields are an area where we know there's a very specific and significant demand, but it's also a device that doesn't require particular manufacturer quality systems and things of that nature to be in place. So it's a great place for additive to fit in.”
America Makes has been working with the Department of Health and Human Services to open-source schematics for everything from personal masks to face shields to comfort straps to relieve irritation from wearing surgical masks for extended periods.
“The key item that we're focusing on is making sure those folks who have printers are printing the right things. And those manufacturers that have additive technologies are using them in the right way,” Wilczynski says. “We're learning so much about how critical resources are right now, whether it's stockpiling of materials or filter material or whatever it might be. We want to make sure that we're applying that in the right manner.”
“So this is a very good demonstrator of how advanced manufacturing and additive manufacturing can come to life and deliver against a specific need,” he added.
Items of PPE are not the only medical supplies being considered for 3D printing. Some groups are looking to find viable options for printing vital parts needed for ventilators. One such group is Poland-based Ventilaid, which has not only been working on designing schematics for ventilator parts but developing a blueprint to use them with other machinery to create a fully operational ventilator from scratch.
“We’ve started prototyping,” Szymon Chrupczalski, founder and manager of Ventilaid, told Fox News. “Most of the parts in the first prototype were printed we used some very basic elements from industry that are available in almost all of the countries in the world.”
Szymon and his Krakow-based 3D printing company, Urbicum, decided to create the nonprofit Ventilaid after seeing news about shortages in Italy.
“That was really, really shocking to me,” he said. “How is it possible that developed countries with good health care systems run out of ventilators?”
Szymon and his team searched the Internet for schematic clearances and determined that they could build the machines relatively cheaply. They have been working on designs to make working ventilators from a combination of additive manufacturing and CPAP/BIPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure/Biphasic Positive Airway Pressure) machines normally used by those diagnosed with sleep apnea.
They stress that these designs are for “last resort” ventilators. They are currently working on the development of a third prototype and say they has garnered interest from medical professionals in the U.S. as well as the Illinois Governor’s office.
“We’ve tested them ourselves," Chrupczalski said. “But we can't say it is safe yet. We need professional and clinical testing. That’s the main goal. What we lack is medical certification, which is usually a long process.”
“FDA regulations would need to loosen very much to make the process easier," he added.