Tackling COVID-19 with Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing COVID 19

With businesses all over the globe facing unprecedented manufacturing disruption, and healthcare concerns becoming the number one priority, many find themselves forced to improvise in order to survive. Due to travel and work restrictions, collaborating to maximise local production efforts has never been more critical. This is something Tim Simpson, Paul Morrow Professor of Engineering Design and Manufacturing at Penn State University and a leader at our Leading Intelligent Engineering Masterclass, understands better than maybe anyone. As the leader of the Center for Innovative Manufacturing Processing through Direct Digital Deposition (CIMP-3D), he had the expertise, equipment, and network required to form an astounding and life-saving response effort for his community and Penn State’s Health System.

Launching a Response and Identifying Production Priorities

Tim describes how measures taken against COVID-19 affected his day-to-day life in the early stages:

“The initial shift to online classes was a weird one. As I was adjusting to teaching in these new ways, I heard about people in Italy and the Czech Republic using 3D printing to make new devices, so I decided to re-task the students in my 3D printing class to begin brainstorming new designs, solutions and alternatives to existing personal protective equipment (PPE).”

3d printing for production shortage

Jessica Menold, an Assistant Professor in Engineering Design at Penn State, used 3D printing to create a silicone rubber mold to ramp up production of critical parts for the MASC Initiative.  (Source: Jessica Menold, Penn State)

Tim revised the project for his students and reached out to his vast network of connections to form an “all hands on deck” approach to tackling the PPE shortage. Many students had their own 3D printers, and some took 3D printers from their labs home to continue work throughout self-isolation, showing their dedication and a genuine drive to engineer life-changing solutions.

Tim’s contacts subsequently reached out to their contacts and before long a team of engineers, doctors, students, alumni, and companies and a network of over 150 3D printers had come together. Tim told us about the speed at which things progressed:

“We started by launching just the idea. It wasn’t really a company, but it quickly began to feel like a startup. This small group quickly grew to a mid-sized firm with hundreds of people within just a few days. Right now we have around 350 people across the state, with around 310 of those on Microsoft Teams spread across 15 channels.”

Suddenly, Tim and his teams found themselves at the helm of a movement that could make a real impact in their community’s fight against COVID-19. This project would go on to be named the Manufacturing And Sterilisation for COVID-19 (MASC) Initiative. The sheer volume of emails going back and forth soon proved too chaotic to handle; so, they made the switch to Microsoft Teams, splitting into smaller groups to discuss different aspects of the operation. Another issue that came up in the early stages was creating a public-facing website that was as user-friendly as possible, so as to welcome further collaboration and growth in the pursuit of bringing quality PPE to their local workers and vulnerable individuals.

Initial designs for PPE from MASC included face shields and filtration masks, which went into the prototyping stages as soon as they could manage:

“From the first email to the first face shield being made, it only took about 3 or 4 days. That’s the benefit of 3D printing. We can design and create the product immediately in our local facilities. It only took a day and a half for the clear plastic sheet to arrive; so, things got moving very quickly. Seeing our designs come to life was a huge boost to morale and an early win for the team; it felt like a real solution!”

Scaling Production to Meet Increasing Demands

As the personnel numbers at MASC boomed, so did design and production efforts. From the initial face shield prototype to the final design, hundreds of iterations were passed around to doctors, nurses, and clinicians for feedback.

Remote work

The MASC team used 3D printing to rapidly develop and iterate on multiple open sourced and in-house designs for filtration masks to address the PPE shortages.

Managing these CAD files and designs reportedly became “a bit of an issue”; so, file-management systems were adopted in order to make sure everyone was up-to-date and working from the latest versions. Tim went on to tell us more about the process of finalising a design for mass production:

“The one final design was then shared with companies who have the required FDA certifications and sterilisation procedures to make medical equipment, which is highly regulated in the United States. I assigned two ‘VPs’ to specifically lead the sterilisation and manufacturing research, as it was something crucial to get right. Before long we had gone from 3D printing with our personal machines, to having thousands of final products created each day and delivered to our healthcare workers by properly approved manufacturers.”

Accelerating production with 3D printing

Matt Briddell at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center shares feedback on a 3D printed filtration mask tested by the doctors and nurses with the engineers, material scientists, and industry collaborators working remotely on its design (Source: Jason Plotkin, Penn State Health)

As a professor at Penn State University, Tim’s efforts were initially intended for the medical staff at Penn State Health’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. However, the MASC team quickly realised the knowledge and insights that they had gained working directly with the doctors and the team at Hershey, and they wanted to share their solutions and partners with others in the state of Pennsylvania.  To do that, some serious scaling would have to be put into effect as 3D printing was not fast to meet the broad demand for PPE. Tim spoke to us about how they increased their production scale:

“Startups and smaller manufacturing companies have been great partners for us because they are used to being agile and pivoting to meet new demands. Once company convert a manufacturing line to make face shields in under 7 days: something that would have normally taken 30 days in a bigger company. We also found that companies that embraced digital workflows and digital manufacturing technologies like 3D printing were much more responsive and flexible to meet the constantly changing and demands.”

In addition, 3D printing was used as a tool to assist traditional manufacturing methods in producing PPE. For instance, injection moulding and vacuum forming processes could be brought online faster, and often cheaper, by using moulds that came from 3D printing machines. When Tim spoke to us he made sure not to understate the help that 3D printing had provided throughout the entire operation: he assured us that his team had used 3D printing in every way possible to speed things up and rapidly deploy new innovations.

From start to finish, MASC’s efforts were made possible by agile collaboration and networking. These increases in production allowed Tim to reach beyond the Hershey Medical Center and into the community and other healthcare systems to offer PPE wherever needed:

“We’re now providing PPE for healthcare workers outside of the Hershey Medical Center. This includes Doctors, Surgeons, Clinicians, Nurses, and those in the new role of people taking temperatures upon entry to hospitals. Also workers in senior care facilities and the elderly who are most vulnerable. And then anyone in public sectors of work such as police, garbagemen, ambulance crews, etc. These all need PPE to do their jobs safely.”

The Importance of Agile and Adaptive Manufacturing

We at TLN could see many parallels between Tim’s challenges and those experienced by businesses the world over, and so as our time speaking to Tim came to an end, we asked what advice he would give to those struggling with production difficulties in these gruelling times. Happy to share advice, he had the following to say:

“Being agile is now a necessity, not a nicety: having a quick response time and adjusting to constantly change demands is critical for success. Your mindset must be flexible as well, not just your organization, and that’s part of what makes 3D printing such a great asset in a situation like this. You also need to maintain a direct connection to the front lines of your operation, with the ability to shift priorities and needs according to what is being reported or new trends as they emerge. It’s all about adaptation and keeping your eye on the prize, which in this case, is keeping healthcare workers as safe a possible.”

Tim also spoke to us about the usage of data in the pursuit of production flexibility. The importance of data collection and the powerful prospect of Industry 4.0 solutions were something he gave particular emphasis to:

“Keeping track of PPE usage rates and managing expectations with customers is also key. We’re constantly gathering data in order to see what is being used and how quickly things are being disposed of, as it’s an ever-changing level of demand that we need to supply for. Sensors and other Industry 4.0 technologies could help with this in the future, allowing us to more quickly align the real need with the perceived need. It’s frustrating that we have nothing like that yet, especially not in many the healthcare systems in the United States, and hospitals have zero insight into their supply chain as a result. Even with 150 3D printers available to us, it’s hard to know what’s working and what’s idle. It would be great to now at any instant, what is operational and what is being repaired, and it would have been even better to have sensors on each system that helped identify when a problem was about to occur before it actually failed.” 

Continuing in regards to Industry 4.0, Tim expanded on further benefits that supply chains could expect as a result of smart factory integration:

“The functioning of ventilators and other key medical equipment is extremely important to maintain in a situation like this, and it is even more challenging to do in a ‘temporary’ healthcare facility that is constructed in a nearby parking lot, for instance, because the hospital ran out of beds to care for sick patients. Adding sensors to this type of equipment would allow us to not only remotely monitor patients to ensure that they were getting the proper care, but also see what systems are working, what aren’t, and recognise patterns in order to implement preventative measures and maintenance. This idea of preventative maintenance is something that is applicable to the entire supply chain, allowing you greater insight into how your factories are running and giving the insight needed to remain agile and flexible as things change.”

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