TORONTO – Volunteer groups throughout Canada use 3D printers to produce personal protective equipment and other important supplies at breakneck speeds – an effort that some say can have lasting effects even after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.
This “maker” volunteered their expertise, time and tools to produce equipment used at the forefront of the struggle against a pandemic, drawing on open-source designs and creating their own.
Kate Kazlovich, a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering, said she and a group of 3D printing enthusiasts from various backgrounds have joined in this effort, producing face shields to protect frontline workers, ear protectors to make N95 masks more durable to wear for long periods period, and especially, the connector that allows one ventilator to service two patients.
“What is usually a standard, traditional research projects that take place inside hospital walls have been taken and the community can contribute,” Kazlovich said.
While the ventilator connector was designed from the ground up, in partnership with the University Health Network as part of an open-source research project, the team also worked to improve the open-source design that others have created.
“We are trying not to be crazy about design,” Kazlovich said. “We do what is necessary and what is asked.”
For example, the team reworked the design for headbands used with face shields, drastically increasing the amount they could produce at one time.
Marc Shu-Lutman, an industrial designer on the team, redesigned the band so that they were printed in stacks, and could easily be detached from each other.
“This has the same function. That is the same band. But now, last night, instead of completing two, we can do 16, “he said.
After testing, the products are used in hospitals, long-term care homes and other front-line facilities, and designs are posted online for anyone to take.
Teams have worked long distances to comply with physical long distance protocols, and have donated their time, sometimes paying for materials themselves. They also accept donations.
They say that even though they understand their limitations – they cannot produce electronic equipment and have no background in medical manufacturing – there are lessons to be learned from the creation of such communities and this is done beyond the current crisis.
“If the community survives, you can see it being applied to other areas and other industries that are moving forward. Clearly, (pandemic) is giving everyone one direction at this time. And that might change, but the next project could be something very, very different, “said James Wallace, another team member.
Mihaela Vlasea, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo and associate director at the Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing Lab, said she also saw this experience change the manufacturing process going forward.
“I think that the most interesting result of this is the change from globalization to a more local response to the needs of the health care sector,” he said.
“We have seen that in the manufacture of additives where many supply chains have become very close to hospitals, which did not occur a few months ago. And I also see a lot of grants and the research and industry sectors trying to encourage that local response. “
The Vlasea team also printed 3D PPE, including face shields and, more recently, components for face masks specifically designed for the wearer.
He said that in the past few weeks, they had switched from communicating directly with hospitals and now sending the parts they produce to companies that can assemble them.
But he notes that there are some drawbacks to 3D printing – most importantly, the inability to increase the scale of a project because making additional materials takes longer than more traditional techniques.
That does not mean there is no place for 3D printing in traditional manufacturing landscapes.
“We see companies coming to ask for injection molds that are produced through additives so they can really increase production using a more traditional manufacturing approach,” he said.
During the pandemic, the federal government had asked companies and organizations that normally did not make medical supplies to join the cause. But Health Canada also warns that there are certain standards that must be met.
“While Health Canada supports efforts to increase the availability of PPE for frontline health workers, organizations must recognize that the manufacture of medical devices sold in Canada has technical considerations to ensure that they are safe, effective and of high quality and must meet certain regulatory standards,” the department said .
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