Agencies Turn to 3D Printing to Make Medical Supplies

April 22, 2020 | Categories: America Makes News

The Energy Department, FDA and NIH are among the agencies using 3D printing tools to make personal protective equipment.

One of the most pressing concerns in the fight against COVID-19 is the shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, for healthcare workers, such as masks, gloves and gowns. The Energy Department’s national laboratories and other federal agencies are stepping up to help fill the gap by using 3D printing technology.

A task force of 15 of the Energy Department’s 17 national labs, in consultation with public and private stakeholders, is helping to tackle supply chain bottlenecks, according to Paul Dabbar, the department’s undersecretary for science.

An Energy Department spokesperson tells FCW the labs’ 3D prototype printing effort “could help industry shorten development times for companies to make acceptable products from months to days,” the publication reports.

The group is working on boosting supplies of surgical masks and face shields, ventilator systems, and consumables such as swabs, components used in COVID-19 testing, Dabbar says in a blog post on the Energy Department’s website.

“Efforts are currently underway to use additive manufacturing to rapidly prototype test articles. Once the protypes are validated, the task force will assess production considerations, including design and manufacture of tooling, material selection, and supply chain engagement,” he says.

Agencies Step Up Their 3D-Printing Efforts

The Energy Department’s labs will primarily focus “on the development of dies and molds that can be rapidly and broadly distributed to private companies experienced in the manufacturing” of healthcare supplies and equipment, Dabbar says, using protocols that meet regulated healthcare standards.

However, the Food and Drug Administration urges caution for healthcare workers who may consider using 3D-printed PPE. “While it is possible to use 3D printing to make certain PPE, there are technical challenges that have to be overcome to be effective enough,” the agency notes in a FAQ post on the topic. “For example, 3D-printed PPE may provide a physical barrier, but 3D-printed PPE are unlikely to provide the same fluid barrier and air filtration protection as FDA-cleared surgical masks and N95 respirators.”

The FDA also says that it “understands that 3D printing may occur to provide wider availability of devices during the COVID-19 public health emergency,” but that “some devices are more amenable to 3D printing than others.”

If healthcare providers are using 3D-printed masks, they should check the masks’ seals for leaks, confirm that personnel can breathe through any makeshift filter materials, exercise caution in surgical environments where the need for liquid barrier protection and flammability is a concern, recognize that the mask may not provide air filtration enough to prevent transmission of infectious agents, and safely dispose of infectious materials and disinfect any part they intend to reuse.

The FDA says it recently approved an Emergency Use Authorization for ventilators, ventilator tubing connectors and ventilator accessories, “which could include items such as 3D-printed tubing connectors for multiplexing ventilator use.”

The FDA is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Innovation Ecosystem, the America Makes public-private partnership, and the National Institutes of Health’s 3D Print Exchange, a resource from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH.

America Makes says its online repository is “gathering the needs of healthcare providers, 3D printing capabilities of U.S. manufacturers, and 3D print designs.” It is connecting manufacturers with printable designs that can produce the supplies needed by healthcare providers.

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