3D Printing Helps the Medical Industry fight Coronavirus While Also Protecting Mother EarthCindy Deekitwong
3D printing (AKA additive manufacturing) is playing a vital role in how the medical community is responding to the global coronavirus pandemic. But in tandem, the technology is also proving it can help heal the earth.
Like many other industries, healthcare is dependent on supply chains that are structured around mass manufacturing and global transportation to the eventual point of need. Normally, the system works well. But in times like these, disruption is the new norm.
Throughout their supply chains, medical companies have faced shortages and delays. Manufacturing facilities have closed down, shipping has been dramatically reduced, warehouses have been emptied and inventories at hospitals and clinics were dangerously low. That’s life-threatening, especially when it comes to critical items like personal protective equipment (PPE.)
Beyond existing needs, the novel nature of this disease requires new techniques and tools for testing, treatment, and ultimately, prevention. Speed is an important weapon in our defense against this invisible enemy. In a mass manufacturing scenario, innovation takes time. Right now that’s a precious commodity.
3D Printing to the Rescue
The additive manufacturing industry has stepped up and is working with front-line caregivers, helping get them the tools they need to effectively combat the coronavirus pandemic. At the industrial level, the technology is being used to help manufacturers retool their lines to produce new ventilators. In laboratories, 3D printing is being used to manufacture swabs and other elements of test kits. “Makers” are even donating time and materials to make masks, face shields and other types of PPE.
While all of this is invaluable, it also helps validate the point that monolithic supply chains aren’t always better. Smaller, more localized efforts can get vitally important products where they’re needed, faster. Products are getting developed more quickly and they’re being manufactured “on demand.” There are even implications with packaging and shipping, where fewer materials are needed, and less time and energy is spent getting items from Point A to Point B.
Sustainability Protects our Planet
At the same time, 3D printing is also demonstrating its sustainability advantage. By default, subtractive manufacturing methods generate a lot of scrap material. Because 3D printers apply material additively, they typically don’t. Further, many additive materials are reusable or recyclable. In some cases, they can even be sterilized. Finally when products are modified or improved, there’s less obsolescence. Additive’s economics aren’t as dependent on volume, so it makes less sense to stock and store huge inventories, especially in a scenario where innovation is constant.
In the face of this crisis, 3D printing is proving its value to the medical industry and many of the people they’re caring for. But, with all of its sustainability advantages, it’s also demonstrating that it can benefit the health of our one and only home…planet earth!