AM Reducing Dependence and Redefining Healthcare
Published on : Wednesday 07-10-2020
By : Editorial Team
Additive Manufacturing and its use cases in the medical industry have experienced immense growth, says Titli Chatterjee.
As we move towards the Neo-Normal, the industry by and large experiences disturbances across sectors and is in a transitional phase. While the threat of Covid-19 recedes over time, the pandemic will change the Indian industry quite substantially. Supply chain and logistics challenges, trade policies scrambling owing to disruptions have resulted in critical shortages of essential goods. Healthcare has been the most dependable industry owing to its frontline role in the fight against Covid-19. While the world witnessed an alarming increase in the number of coronavirus positive cases, the exponential growth in the spread of the virus revealed the shortage for medical equipment.
A significant crisis was seen for the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) which is vital in protecting the health professionals, staffs, doctors attending to patients’ distress. In addition, shortage of ventilator valves, mask connectors for CPAP and BiPAP, emergency respiration device became also a growing concern in this pandemic. A major factor influencing this shortage was the contorted manufacturing supply chain. Manufacturers across the globe was in the state of helplessness due to international shutdowns and transport restrictions. While the healthcare system is on a war footing to increase the capacity of equipment and the crisis-response efforts are in motion to address these shortages, certain unconventional manufacturing techniques like Additive Manufacturing or 3D Printing is a step-up to the healthcare adherence.
One of the hospitals in Brescia had its supply challenges eased out through 3D printing technology. The startup Isinnova delivered a 3D printer to the hospital which was able to print ventilator valves on site for a fraction of the price to the original part. The speed and the nominal cost at which Isinnova was able to provide these valves has highlighted many of the benefits associated with 3D printing in a manufacturing process. In the Indian context, there were no pre-existing standard instructions from a governing body on quality to manufacture the right kind of PPE kits and with a broken supply chain production to meet the demand needed an immediate deliberation to support this disruption. The 3D printing is witnessing an advancement in emerging tech adoption which reduces the dependence on the conventional supply chain. Few organisations adopting 3D printing technology was able to produce replacement parts for medical ventilators. Apart from this, it has also enabled manufacturers to develop hygiene and safety products like hands free door handles.
Use cases having immediate implications
Apart from the most prominent example of Isinnova in producing valves and helping about ten critical patients save their lives during the peak of Covid-19 utilisation of powder bed fusion (PBF) is another additive manufacturing process in which a laser melts and fuses a powder to build up layers of an object speeding the process of valve production.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) including face masks has been 3D printed since the outbreak of the pandemic. In the UK, an eight-thousand-member group called as the 3D crowd has come together to produce more than 100,000 single-use face shields to fill-in the gaps of the supply chain. Also, Valdecilla Hospital located in Spain has also optimally utilised 3D printers sourced from US provider Formlabs to design and print swabs in bulk which are used in Covid-19 testing kits to take samples from a patient’s mouth or nose helping to detect the presence of virus in the body. Innovation sees an acceleration at this juncture when we see lot of emerging tech adopters including startups ideate and deliver a breakthrough product to address the unprecedented crisis. Materialise, a Belgium based additive manufacturing company has even 3D printed a customisable hands-free door handle that allows people to open the door with the help of their arm or elbow, preventing the spread of the virus. Healthcare is probably one of the indicative sectors that is using additive manufacturing as a tool for crisis management.
What Covid-19 crisis tells us about 3D printing/additive manufacturing?
While we discussed the various implications of 3D printing technology and how its slowly becoming a crisis management tool to fight the virus at various odds, few of the things that we might not be acquainted with are:
1. 3D printing technology can be used in volume manufacturing, it has become a valuable resource of production during emergency. As mentioned earlier, Formlabs is now using more than 250 in-house 3D printers to produce up to 150,000 Covid-19 test swabs. Technologies like Stereolithography and Powder Bed Fusion (PBF) to produce thousands of 3D printed parts relatively in a short time frame.
2. 3D printing materials for medical equipment must be developed in medical environments, it’s critical to collaborate with the healthcare officials and take into consideration the entire healthcare ecosystem to ensure that the materials procured to produce the items are suitable for the purpose and meets the need.
3. Also, lack of standardisation makes it extremely difficult to adopt 3D printing, particularly in healthcare. The Standard Operating Procedure and material guidelines must be enforced in production during emergency situations. The certification and standard guidelines must be accelerated.
4. Adoption of 3D printing during Covid-19 pandemic has also highlighted issues around patent and IP law. Patent-holding companies should grant temporary or limited licenses maintaining a balance between protecting IP and providing support.
Additive Manufacturing or 3D printing and its use cases in the medical industry have experienced immense growth. For many other patient-specific devices such as dental restorations, prosthetics or custom implants it is already the go-to production technology for lot of manufacturing companies. One of the striking aspects in this pandemic was the response to Covid-19 through advanced technology adoption and novel innovation urgently deployed to curb the spread of the virus. It opens avenues in the healthcare industry, highlighting the potential of additive manufacturing and its wide implementation. However, this transition will have its own set of hurdles including the regulatory environment, patent infringements and other required standardising protocols. In line to this additive manufacturing is not here to replace conventional manufacturing process, due to its intrinsic digital manufacturing approach the technology will support the traditional supply chain that would be immune to disruption. Additive Manufacturing is redefining healthcare for a post-Covid world.
Titli Chatterjee has been leading the ER&D/Industry 4.0 research initiatives of NASSCOM, having experience in research and consulting in the areas of emerging technologies and engineering services. In her current role as Manager – Research Titli is closely working with industry leaders, startups and other stakeholders to highlight how technology can be a game changer on the industrial front, and developing a roadmap in disruptive technologies for Indian IT-BPM industry.