How 3D printing is coming to the aid of health workers

June 07, 2020 2:15 AM

3D printing is coming to the aid of health workers as well as the masses in providing essential items like masks and face shields.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object is created.

By Shriya Roy

Since its inception in the Eighties, 3D printing has found applicability in many industries. The latest is essential products. At a time when Covid-19 has brought the world to its knees, with many people struggling for essential items like masks, face shields, etc (which are in short supply), 3D printing has come to the rescue, helping create such products to aid people.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly-sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object. The advantage of 3D printing is that it enables one to produce complex shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing methods. It has been used in a diverse range of industries, including consumer products, dentistry, prosthetics, among others.

In the present situation, when demand for medical and essential items has seen a rise, 3D printing is being put to use to create these products. Students in Tunisia in Africa, for instance, are aiding hospitals that are running out of supplies by 3D-printing face shields—a group of engineering students have launched the “Save Ain Draham” initiative, supported by Mercy Corps and Khir Khmir Association. They used a 3D printer and laser cutter to recently assemble over 1,000 face shields to help doctors in understaffed hospitals.

An Army-Navy partnership in the US is producing 3D-printed nasal swabs for testing. The collaboration between Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and Army Medical Materiel Development Activity at Fort Detrick has enabled 3D printing of swabs out of surgical-grade resin. The shipyard has been 3D-printing face shields and has the infrastructure to produce up to 10,000 swabs per day. The swabs, once sterilised, can be used along with Covid-19 testing kits.

The US Army is also using 3D printing to produce customisable earplugs for soldiers. The scientists’ new technique for producing ear protection could be deployed to prevent hearing loss among members of the armed forces during combat. The army researchers used a combination of scanning methods, ear impressions, digital scans of physical impressions and 3D printing to produce and test these earplugs.

Manu Krishnan, a hardware engineer at Continental Automotive India, deployed his skills to build 3D-printed face shields for a government hospital during the lockdown period. He was at home in Kerala and realised the lack of face shields at a local hospital. Along with his brother, he designed 3D-printed face shields from home. And the best part about it is that the shields cost less than Rs 50 to manufacture and are also biodegradable. They managed to supply over 200 face shields to the hospital and intend to continue this further.

The National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli, has also joined the bandwagon to produce low-cost reusable face shields through 3D printing. This gear will be provided to frontline workers like medical staff, sanitary workers and security guards. The NIT is aiming at large-scale production of these shields that can be sold at Rs 70 per shield.

Scientists from Spain’s University of Huelva have also used 3D printing to create a spiral structure that is capable of removing 18 disinfection byproducts from drinking water. This can be used at water treatment facilities, helping make water safer to drink. Using 3D printing to create the structure makes it easy to operate, more robust and available at a lower cost, the researchers said. 3D printing has earlier been utilised in a similar way by business groups too.

In the medical field, urology, which is concerned with the urinary tract system, has also been using 3D printing. Researchers are employing 3D anatomy scans that can be used to create a precise, personalised model of a patient’s organ. 3D printing has also been used to improve medical students’ understanding when diagnosing malignant tumours. It is used to manufacture medical equipment as well.

At a time when we are looking to combat a deadly virus, it has to be all hands on deck. 3D printing can go a long way in aiding doctors, health staff and the common people to access essentials and required equipment at a low cost and in bulk.

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