Forbes – April 3, 2020.It’s an all-hands – and robotic arms – on deck period in American history with manufacturers across the country leveraging technology to help combat COVID-19.
Most medical supplies still come from overseas while closer-to-home efforts are smaller scale and just getting underway. Still, advanced (automation/additive) manufacturing has mobilized, indeed galvanized, in a spirited way.
Exhibit A: Recognizing hospital workers urgently need equipment, Youngstown, Ohio-based America Makes, the national accelerator for additive manufacturing (3D Printing), just launched (along with the National Institutes of Health) the NIH 3D Print Exchange. It’s a national repository of 3D print designs for medical supplies to be reviewed, approved and shared with additive manufacturers around the country, eager to address critical shortages.
Meanwhile, as Abbott Laboratories moves this week to ramp up production of new five-minute coronavirus tests, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that the pieces are being assembled by an automated system at an Abbott plant in Scarborough, Maine.
In Western New York, an initiative called Buffalo Manufacturing Works, operated by EWI, is spearheading an effort to design and test a prototype medical mask for workers on the front lines. Pairing advanced automation and additive manufacturing technology with more traditional manufacturing processes, such as vacuum forming, the team of engineers and technologists have fast-tracked a first-step, a technical problem statement, and in the coming days expects to release it to a group of supply chain partners with an eye toward ramping up local production, according to EWI. The project is being done in conjunction with Buffalo Manufacturing Works’ partners at Alexandria, Va.-based Building Momentum.
The Kansas City region’s brightest manufacturing minds have rallied to create an open source medical face shield design that is ingeniously feasible i.e. anyone with the capability to cut .020 PETG (a clear plastic sheet) can produce them. Some 10,000 masks have already been created and donated to the medical field owing to fast, cut-to-the chase collaboration among Dimensional Innovations (design and fabrication), InStore Design Display, The University of Kansas Health System and the KU Center for Design Research.
Similarly, in Minnesota, robotics students at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis have teamed with nearby medical technology leader Medtronic MDT and 3D printing company Stratasys, which has manufacturing facilities in Eden Prairie, Minn., to make face shields.
Suddenly, not surprisingly, thankfully, it seems 3D printing of precious materials, from protective gear to ventilator valves, is in vogue, according to Nell Watson, an Irish engineer who helped pioneer machine-learning-enabled body imaging.
“Finally, we have the ‘killer app’ for distributed production – saving lives,” she said.
Watson is a member of the AI Faculty at Singularity University and helps lead working groups for the IEEE, the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for humanity. Four years ago, Watson helped lead a new standards project to ensure transparency in the design and development of autonomous systems.
“I feel that this moment is likely to promote the value of such technologies to many more people,” Watson said.
“We have seen so much innovation throughout the additive manufacturing industry related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said John Wilczynski, Executive Director of America Makes. “The question we’ve repeatedly been asked is ‘are these products safe and reliable in a health care setting?’ The design portion of the repository seeks to put clarity around that question for both manufacturers and providers. We believe it is a critical part to allowing the additive industry to effectively meet the needs of front line health care workers.”
The health care industry’s supply chains are, however, still largely China dependent.
Over roughly the past 15 years, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry in particular has become ever-more reliant on a supply chain spread around the globe.
Take drugs, for example. Many are either directly sourced from China or made from intermediate chemicals, active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) or their chemical precursors, all manufactured in China and India.
“The benefits of reversing the off-shoring process and bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. are becoming apparent to many companies,” said Michelle Comerford, Industrial and Supply Chain Practice Leader, Biggins Lacy Shapiro & Co.
“Companies large and small are now considering relocating manufacturing operations to the U.S. from overseas to reach customers faster, reduce risks in the supply chain and improve quality control. The pharmaceutical industry has been one of the hardest hit supply chains thus far in the coronavirus scare – an impact that is still projected to worsen,” Comerford said.
If pharmaceutical companies want to onshore America’s drug production there’s at least one obvious port of call: Puerto Rico has emerged as an alternative to Asia for drug-makers in the wake of COVID-19, according to Rod Miller, CEO, Invest Puerto Rico, a nonprofit that aims to attract new business and capital investment to the territory. Tax incentives that allowed for a life sciences industry to form in the territory during the 1970s – but which were phased out in the 1990s – are being discussed again on Capitol Hill. With the right mix of political and financial backing, the island could ramp up quickly, Miller said.
“Puerto Rico’s base case as a pharma hub is strong,” he said. “The life sciences already make up 50% of Puerto Rico’s total manufacturing.”
(For more on the Puerto Rico pharmaceutical push, here is a related Forbes.com article).
“Made in America” isn’t just a feel-good slogan, not in such a desperate time.
As the Department of Defense Manufacturing Innovation Institute for additive manufacturing, America Makes is a linchpin, connecting the U.S. government and its manufacturing base. Its centralized platform connecting approved 3D designs with additive manufacturers has started to garner traffic, according to Andrew Resnick, Director of Communications, America Makes.
The NIH 3D Print Exchange is the end result of the designs that come through the repository website. To date, the site has drawn interest from 49 manufacturers, 15 health care providers and 49 designers, he said. Of those 49 designs, 36 are either going through or have gone through the review process; two face mask designs have been reviewed for clinical use and 28 ventilator part designs are in the process of being reviewed.
Regarding even more specifics, the FDA published a Q&A on 3D printing medical devices, parts and accessories during the COVID-19 pandemic.