Joseph DeSimone on Monday.are used to make everything from bicycle seats to teeth straighteners, is now tackling the new and the disease it causes, COVID-19. Within 24 hours, it’ll send medical face shield designs to its network of customers who’ve bought its 3D printers, said Carbon co-founder and Executive Chairman
The company also is working on nasal swab designs that could be used for gathering samples to test for COVID-19. Although hospitals are testing its samples, that effort is in an earlier stage, said DeSemone, who handed the Carbon chief executive role to Ellen Kullman in 2019.
The effort is one of several to apply 3D printing technology to the fight against coronavirus. 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, isn’t as fast at churning out products as conventional mass production methods. But 3D printers are flexible, able to make many different parts anywhere there’s a printer and raw materials like the plastic resins Carbon printers use.
“This is in many ways our moment for additive manufacturing,” DeSimone said in a web conference with customers of Carbon 3D printers. “As earthquakes or hurricanes or pandemics disrupt supply chains … distributed manufacturing is going to shine.”
Some 3D printing efforts have focused on ventilators, a type of medical equipment expected to be in short supply with a surge of COVID-19 patients suffering from respiratory problems. Another shortage are N95 masks that can be useful in reducing the likelihood a wearer will spread COVID-19 to others.
Carbon 3D prints stuff that’s squishy, springy and comes in unusual shapes
Carbon’s 3D printers could be relevant for making ventilator parts, but for face masks, “it’s not so obvious we can move quickly,” he said. Most 3D printers today are best suited to making plastic parts, not cloth or filters used in facemasks.
Carbon, based in Redwood City, California, is shut down except for medical work that’s exempted under the state’s shelter in place rule. “Everything has pivoted exclusively to a response to COVID-19,” DeSimone said, including turning its testing site for new technology into a manufacturing facility. The company also gave its customers an extra 30 days to pay their bills.
Other 3D printing efforts to combat the coronavirus
Formlabs, another 3D printer maker, also is working on 3D printed nasal swabs, Chief Product Officer Dávid Lakatos tweeted. HP is looking at ways to 3D print ventilator valves, breathing filters and plastic door handle adaptors to let people open doors with their elbows instead of their hands to cut disease transmission. Materialise, a Belgian 3D printing company, has developed hands-free door openers already. And an Italian 3D printer enthusiast made ventilator valves.
There are other face shield efforts, too.
Prusa Research, a 3D printer maker, donated 10,000 face shields to the Czech government and released a design others can use. A Liverpool, N.Y., couple has made dozens and released a design downloaded by others thousands of times, too.
Carbon’s DeSimone is cautious about the enthusiasm, though, saying regulatory approval is important and that 3D printer enthusiasts shouldn’t be making components not intended for close human contact that might release unhealthy gases.
“The quality and regulatory oversight is critical,” he said.
It’s part of a remarkable transformation of manufacturing to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Among carmakers, General Motors is looking for ways to help ventilator manufacturer Ventec, Tesla is reportedly making ventilators on its own and Ford is considering the idea. Fiat Chrysler plans to make facemasks in China for the US market, too.
Face shields aren’t as widely recognized a symbol for the world’s medical supply shortage as facemasks. But there’s enormous demand, with hospitals contacting Carbon. One possible customer wants 25,000 face shields, he said.
“We cannot provide those all here,” DeSimone said. “There’s way more need than our community can supply, but I think we can make a dent.”
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