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The Impact 3D Printing is Having on Coronavirus COVID-19 — and What’s Ahead – Futurum Tech Podcast
by Shelly Kramer | April 20, 2020

3D printing technology has the potential to impact almost every industry in the world — whether it’s creating replacement parts for machines to quickly developing prototypes from scratch. Today, the impact 3D printing is having on the global fight against the coronavirus COVID-19 is significant. In this episode of our show, my colleague and fellow analyst Sarah Wallace and I take a look at the role 3D printing is playing — from rapidly creating protective face shields, respirator masks, nasal swabs and ventilator parts for use by front line workers and hospitals — to the challenges the industry faces, to spotlighting companies doing innovative things with 3D printing — and what’s ahead.

What makes 3D printing such a great solution?

What makes 3D printing such a great solution? In a word: It’s fast. With 3D printing, in the space of a short period of time (think hours not days or weeks) it’s possible to design, prototype and produce an idea. And that? That incredibly rapid turnaround time is something that manufacturers can’t (yet) do. Right now, supply chain issues and overwhelming demand are what is driving the need for 3D printing solutions. As a result, 3D printing is, and can continue to, have a big impact on the supply chain by filling short-term supply gaps that every industry is facing as we navigate the COVID-19 outbreak.

Here’s but one example of how 3D printing can provide important solutions to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and our supply chain problems —

Manufacturers of nasal swabs have been struggling to keep up with demand. These swabs are used for coronavirus tests and are very different from standard swabs, as they need to be long and skinny, made of synthetic fiber, and can’t have a wooden shaft. While hospitals and communities want and desperately need to ramp up testing, this weak link in the supply chain is a big factor. That’s where 3D printing can help. In a recent interview with CNN, HP’s Ramon Pastor, acting president of 3D printing and digital manufacturing for HP indicated the company has the capacity to print 1 million swabs a week in the U.S. alone.

Want to watch the interview? You can grab it here:

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What are the limitations of 3D printing?

Sarah walked us through some challenges as it relates to 3D printing. For starters, not all 3D printed equipment is the same, and some is easier to produce than others. Equally as important, some 3D-printed equipment might be better than others, while some might not quite afford the level of protection that’s needed. Some things require FDA approval to produce, and of course there’s always the risk factor for companies producing these things that is inevitably important to consider.

Sarah also mentioned there’s a skills gap that plays a role in the limitations and challenges of 3D printing, as well as some other things worth considering.

What companies in the 3D Printing Space Are Doing Some Really Innovative Things?

Our conversation in the webcast turned to the companies in the 3D printing space that are doing some really innovative things. Sarah is currently immersed in developing a 3D market insight report, so it wasn’t hard to come up with examples of companies doing innovative things with 3D printing. This includes:

Siemens’ Additive Manufacturing (AM) Network is an online order-to-delivery collaboration platform for the industrial additive manufacturing community and connects users, designers, and 3D print service providers to enable faster and simpler production of spare parts for machines like ventilators. Siemens is also making 3D printers available to the global medical community to speed design and production during the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors, hospitals, and organizations in need of medical devices and designers and service providers can register for free access to the Siemens AM Network.

HP has developed a 3D printed hands-free door opener, a mask adjustor clasp that helps make masks more comfortable during long time wear, face shields, hospital grade FFP3 face masks that are reported to be available soon, and 3D printed parts for field ventilators are in development. HP and the company’s partners are making validated design files for many parts that don’t require complex assembly available for free. If you’re a 3D designer or innovator (or know one) who wants to join the battle against COVID-19, you can contribute new applications and ideas to the collaborative effort directly from HP’s website dedicated to 3D printing in support of COVID-19 containment efforts.

Dassault Systèms is using scientific simulation of the human sneeze to support the development of personal protective equipment (PPE) projects in the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab OPEN COVID-19 online community, as part of collaborative efforts to quickly answer unmet urgent needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The simulations are used to demonstrate what happens when a person sneezes, to better understand the effectiveness of different PPE being developed and deployed, and to aid in improving their design. Dassault’s simulator applications are already used in the aerospace and automotive industries to generate a dynamic simulation of fluid and air flow, and their simulation apps are likewise being used to help understand the flow physics of sneezes.

What are some 3D Printing Solutions Being Used in the Fight Against COVID-19?

Some of the big brands immersed in the 3D printing space — like Siemens, and HP, and Dassault we have heard of and might not be surprised by — but they are not alone. There are other companies in the 3D printing space that are also really stepping up.

Tangible Creative, MakerBot, Shapeways and other 3D printing companies in the NYC area have joined together to create the Covid Makers Response Coalition to help provide 3D printed supplies to area hospitals in need of gear. This group is printing 2,000 face shields a day for hospitals in the NYC area.

Voodoo Manufacturing, a NY-based 3D printing startup, has repurposed its 5,000 square-foot facility to mass produce emergency personal protective equipment for the healthcare workers and hospitals. It plans to print at least 2,500 face shields weekly. Hospitals and healthcare workers can place batch orders for protective face shields at CombatingCovid.com.

Carbon, a 3D printing firm is working with the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to create nasal swabs.

SmileDirectClub is one of the largest 3D printing manufacturers in the US (who knew?) and is partnering with medial supply companies and healthcare orgs to produce supplies like face shields and respirator valves.

Protolabs, a Minnesota-based digital manufacturer, has prioritized medical orders on its manufacturing floor which includes ventilator parts and is also producing components for COVID-19 test kits

Formlabs, a Somerville, Mass-based developer and manufacturer of 3D printers and software is using 250 printers in its Ohio factor to manufacture 100,000 nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing every day.

Ford Motor Company and GE are partnering to expand production of ventilators and other critical equipment in the U.S. and currently using Ford’s factories to produce plastic face shields and components for PPE, with a goal of assembling more than 100,000 face shields a week.

Volkswagon has formed a task force to adapt its manufacturing facilities much the way Ford and others have, and also plan on leveraging its more than 125 industrial 3D printers.

The Allure of 3D Printing is Clear

As you’ll see by our conversation here, the allure of 3D printing to combat coronavirus COVID-19 is clear. 3D printing solutions are affordable. They interject much needed rapid response capabilities into the manufacturing process and also augment gaps in the supply chain. The beauty and the strength of 3D printing lies in both the affordability of 3D printers and the network or the community of 3D printing enthusiasts. Just how big is that community of 3D printing enthusiasts?

According to a report published in August of 2019 by the Federation of American Scientists, there were some 600,000 purchases of 3D printers priced under $5,000 sold in the US alone in 2018, and some 140,000 industrial grade 3D printers sold worldwide. That means there are a lot of 3D printers out there. Even more impressive, to us anyway, is the knowledge base and expertise, and the strength of the community that’s being created — both by gigantic companies in the 3D sector, as well as by smaller companies all over the world — is quickly becoming clear.

What role will 3D printing play as businesses begin to rethink and rework their business models post-pandemic? We predict that it will be a big one! Keep an eye out for Sarah’s Market Insights Report on 3D Printing, which will be published in early May.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast and subscribe to our YouTube channel because there’s a lot more video that you’ll see from our team.

Note that this show is intended for information and entertainment purposes only. Over the course of this webcast, we may talk about companies that are publicly traded and we may even reference that fact and their equity share price, but please do not take anything that we say as a recommendation about what you should do with your investment dollars. We are not investment advisors and we do not ask that you treat us as such.

Other insights from the Futurum Research team:

HP Steps Up 3D Initiatives During Pandemic

Rethinking the Post-Pandemic Business Model

Canalys PC Shipment Data Shows Pent Up Demand Due to COVID-19

Image Credit: KXAN.com

Transcript:

Shelly Kramer: Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of the Futurum Tech Podcast. This is Shelly Kramer, your host, and I’m joined today by my colleague and fellow analyst Sarah Wallace. Today we’re going to talk about the impact 3D printing is having on coronavirus, COVID-19, and what’s ahead. Before we get started, I need to remind you that this podcast is for information and entertainment purposes only. Over the course of this podcast, we may talk about companies that are publicly traded. We may even reference that fact and we may talk about their share prices, but please don’t take anything that we say as a recommendation about what you should do with your investment dollars. We’re not investment advisors and we ask that you not treat us as such.

With that piece of business out of the way, let’s talk about 3D printing technology. 3D printing technology really has the potential to impact almost every industry in the world. By the way, that’s not really news, but things like creating replacement parts for machines to quickly developing prototypes from scratch, that’s the magic of 3D printing. In today’s world, when we’re dealing with the coronavirus, what we’re looking at in terms of 3D solutions, are ways to rapidly create protective face shields and respirator masks and ventilator parts and other things, and that makes 3D printing take center stage in many instances. So what is it that makes 3D printing such a great solution? In a word, it’s fast. In the space of an incredibly short period of time using 3D printing, it’s possible to design, prototype and produce an idea. Think hours, not days or weeks or longer. That rapid turnaround time is something that manufacturers mostly can’t yet do.

3D printing is a big deal right now because it can have a big impact on the supply chain and it can fill these short-term supply gaps that almost every industry is facing right now As we navigate this COVID-19 outbreak. I want to give you just one example of how 3D printing can provide important solutions in our supply chain problems. Right now, manufacturers of nasal swabs have been struggling to keep up with demand. In my community alone, I live in Kansas City, Missouri, in my community alone, we don’t do mass testing because we can’t procure the swabs that are needed. These swabs are very different than standard swabs. They need to be long and skinny, they have to be made of synthetic fiber, they have to not contain certain chemicals and they can’t have a wooden shaft.

So, while hospitals and communities like mine desperately want to ramp up testing, this weak link in the supply chain is a big factor and it’s getting in the way. That’s where 3D printing can help. In an interview that I read recently on CNN, HP’s, Ramon Pastor, who’s the acting president of their 3D printing and digital manufacturing, indicated that HP has the capacity to print 1 million swabs a week in the US alone. So that’s a 3D printing solution to a really big supply chain problem. And by the way, HP isn’t the only company who’s gearing up and ready to do this sort of thing. So with that said, while there are a lot of solutions that 3D printing can deliver, there are some limitations of 3D printing, especially right now.

Sarah, welcome and let’s talk about that.

Sarah Wallace: Hi Shelley. I’m glad to be part of this webcast today. So yeah, you’re right. So as cool as 3D printing is, and it’s definitely become more popular, especially during this time of the pandemic, it also has its limitations. So for instance, the National Institute of Health actually has a hub so that 3D printing companies can upload ideas so that hospitals and different health organizations can actually look at the designs and possibly use them. But the FDA, which is associated with this National Institute of Health hub also has a warning that not all 3D printed equipment is the same. Even things like parts for protective masks, they’re sort of disclaimer that maybe some of them might not actually, if it’s a particular design, meet the qualifications of FDA. So that’s something to take note of, especially when there’s a consortium or a collaborative hub.

And equally important is that some 3D printing equipment might be better than others. So some might not be quite as affordable or offer the protection, as I said before, that’s needed. And the other thing is, in terms of these manufacturers, especially at some of the bigger companies that are turning some of their plants into 3D printing resources right now, there’s different types of cost of equipment. People also say 3D printers can take up a lot of energy and there’s also a bit of a skills gap. So you need to know how to operate this equipment. There can be very specific requirements for things like temperature. So it definitely has its challenges, but it does seem as though we have a lot of companies that are stepping up to the task as much as they can.

Shelly Kramer: I think it’s really awesome. And one thing that is a limitation, it’s not necessarily a limitation, but just something to keep in mind and I’m sure companies of all sizes are keeping this in mind, is that there is a risk factor involved here and this is the negative Nancy part of this conversation, but there is a risk factor. If your company is making equipment for frontline workers or for ventilators or whatever and something catastrophic happens, I think there’s risk associated that legal teams are taking looks at and that sort of thing. And that’s a part of any business operations. But it definitely is, it’s not necessarily a limitation of the use of 3D printing, it’s just sort of a word of caution that as much as full speed ahead might be the inclination here of course, there are things to keep in mind in terms of things that we need to watch out for.

So Sarah, I know that you’re actually working on a market insight report right now for Futurum that’s taking a deep dive into the world of 3D printing, and in researching, preparing for this show, I’ve also looked at a number of companies that are doing some really cool, some innovative things in the 3D space. And one of them, I mentioned HP and swabs a moment ago, but I know that they have developed a 3D printed hands-free door opener. So obviously hands-free, you don’t use hands to open the door. A mask adjuster clasp that helps make masks more comfortable for frontline healthcare workers and other people wearing them during long periods of time, face shields and I see that HP’s hospital grade FFP3 face masks are reportedly going to be available soon and that they’re also working on 3D printed parts for field ventilators. So I know HP is doing some interesting things. Sarah, is there another company that’s on your radar screen in terms of somebody doing really cool stuff, innovative stuff in the 3D printing realm?

Sarah Wallace: Yeah, sure. So there’s Siemens, already has roots with 3D printing. So they have their additive manufacturing network and so they’re connecting users and designers and 3D print service providers to enable faster and simpler production of spare parts for machines like ventilators. So Siemens is also making 3D printers available to the global medical community to speed up design and production during the pandemic. And doctors and hospitals and organizations that are in need of medical devices and designers and service providers can all register for free access to this on their AM network, their Added Manufacturing network, which is great.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah, I think it’s really incredible how many of these companies are pooling resources and information and making free access to forms and different things. I think that’s really cool. I will admit to seeing a number of simulations about sneezes and especially in conversations that have been taking place today about the importance of wearing masks and Desu Systems is using scientific simulation of the human sneeze to support the development of personal protective equipment products in their 3D experience lab. And it’s called a 3D experience lab Open COVID-19 online community. And again, it’s a collaborative effort that was developed to quickly answer unmet urgent needs during this pandemic and that the simulations and that they’ve developed are being used to demonstrate what happens when a person sneezes. And I swear I’ll spend the rest of my life never just taking a common sneeze for granted.

But what’s cool is that Desu simulator applications are already used in aerospace industries and in the automotive industry to generate a dynamic simulation of fluid and air flow. And so they’re using these simulation apps to help understand the flow physics of sneezes. It’s not sexy, but it’s really super important in terms of how we’re using some preexisting applications and transitioning those to look at the coronavirus, COVID-19 pandemic and solutions that we can derive as a part of that. And I think that’s just really, really awesome. There are, speaking of 3D printing solutions and how we’re using them in the fight against COVID-19, so we mentioned some big brands that are immersed in the 3D printing space already, but they’re certainly not alone and there are many other companies in the 3D printing space that are really stepping out.

Sarah, I know you’ve done a ton of research on this topic. What are some of the ones that have caught your eye and what are the things that they’re doing?

Sarah Wallace: So what’s interesting about studying the 3D printing space is that it’s growing even before the pandemic projections were saying that the size of the space is going to double every 3 years. So obviously we have the bigger companies that we’re more familiar with, but there’s also a lot of smaller 3D printing companies. And what’s great is during this time a lot of these smaller companies have collaborated and come together. So for instance, in the New York City area, there’s three 3D printing companies. There’s changeable creative MakerBot and Shapeways and they’ve come together to create the COVID-makers Response Coalition. so that’s going to help provide 3D printed supplies to area hospitals in need of gear. And right now this group is printing about 2,000 face shields a day for hospitals in the New York city area, which we know has been quite a hotbed for COVID-19 due to its population density. So that’s been great.

And then we have a company like Voodoo Manufacturing that’s actually also a New York based 3D printing startup. And it’s repurposed it’s 5,000 foot facility to mass produce emergency personal protective equipment for the health care workers and hospitals in the area as well. And it’s also printing about 2,500 face shields weekly for area health care workers.

Shelly Kramer: What’s cool to me about these companies, whether it’s the group, the COVID-makers Response Coalition, or you were talking about Voodoo manufacturing, I don’t know if you had mentioned the Combatting COVID website that they created, but hospitals and healthcare workers can place their batch orders there, which again to me is just so, it’s the way that communities are working together, the way the companies are stepping up, the way that they’re not being proprietary or protective about their capabilities or their intellectual property or anything else, they’re just really trying to do good, I think is pretty amazing stuff.

One of the things that interested me was seeing that Smile Direct Club, one of the largest 3D printing manufacturers in the US, okay I wasn’t really thinking about this, but it only makes sense, right? I mean I have two kids wearing Invisalign, so it only makes sense that a company like Smile Direct Club would also be in the 3D printing business, and they’re one of the largest printing manufacturers in the US. So they’re partnering with medical supply companies and healthcare orgs to also produce things like face shields and respirator valves. We’re seeing that out of Minnesota with a company called Protolabs, that they’re prioritizing medical orders on their manufacturing floor. Again, they make ventilator parts and components for COVID-19 test kits. A 3D printing firm in California is working with the University of Southern California, San Francisco. They’re creating nasal swabs. What are some more, Sarah? I know you have some more on your list of companies you’re taking a look at these days.

Sarah Wallace: Yeah, sure. So even have some of the bigger companies that we usually know for other purposes. So you have Ford Motor Company, which has partnered with GE and they’re actually right now expanding production of ventilators and other critical equipment in using also things like face shields and other components for personal production. And it seems as though actually their goal is to assemble over a hundred thousand face shields a week.

Another example of an automotive manufacturer, the Volkswagen, they formed a task force to adopt its manufacturing facilities just pretty much the way Ford has. And they’re leveraging it for more than 125 industrial 3D printers to help make equipment during this time as well. So, we see a lot of companies as you gave example like Smile Direct, has one purpose, but now adapting to help during this time.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah, and we’re seeing a lot of that. Ford and GE and Volkswagen, this isn’t what they do, but they’re pivoting quickly and that’s the cool thing that 3D printing technology allows them to do that. And of course in many of these instances they already have industrial 3D printing equipment, so it’s not like starting from scratch. I think that’s an important point.

So 3D printing solutions are generally speaking affordable. They bring much needed rapid response capabilities into the manufacturing process and they also help augment gaps in the supply chain. Obvious issues today. So the beauty and the strength of 3D printing lies in the fact that in many instances, 3D printers are affordable and there’s a gigantic network of 3D printing enthusiasts. I’ve seen calls on Facebook just in my own community alone. People who have 3D printers, XYZ Hospital is really in need of, and people have just been pitching in from a personal level to help. So you have this huge network. I was looking at a report from the Federation of American Scientists and the most recent data that I could find was from 2018. There were 600,000 purchases of 3D printers priced under $5,000 sold in the US alone. That’s a lot of 3D printers.

In that same year, there were about 140,000 industrial grade 3D printers sold worldwide. Then when we’re talking about Ford Motor Company, when we were talking about Volkswagen, when we’re talking about some of these big companies, they’re obviously using industrial equipment. But I think one of the really cool things about 3D printing and the solutions that it can provide is that there is this spectrum of smaller, still very capable machines, a network, a little army throughout the United States, actually throughout the world, because the United States is not the only place this is happening, of people who are ready, willing and able to step in and help, and then some of these bigger companies.

But I do think that before we step away from this conversation, it really is important to point out the skills gap. So maybe some of the good and terrible here is that there is a skills gap from a technical standpoint, but maybe what we’re looking at as a result of this embracing of 3D printing in a global way, that maybe we’ll quickly see people being trained and have more knowledge about this. Doesn’t that seem like an inevitable result, Sarah?

Sarah Wallace: It does. And some of the bigger forefront vendors are already working on this purposely. For instance, HP has 3D printing as a service so they’re actually going to small to medium sized businesses and saying, “If you don’t have your own in-house 3D printing capabilities but would like to, HP offers the equipment, the support and also the training for their in-house employees.” And then we have another vendor like Protolabs, you can upload your 3D printing blueprint online and they can do it for you. To kind of help fill that gap for maybe smaller companies. And that’s one of the predictions I see in the future too, is that through this pandemic and we’re seeing how 3D printing is so useful, I think that it’ll be considered more of the supply chain for any size business.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah, I think that’s an incredible upside certainly if you’re in the 3D printing business. And I think that there are other technologies like this that are kind of on people’s radar screen or from a manufacturing standpoint, maybe it’s something that you just haven’t, you know, maybe you haven’t had the budget, maybe you haven’t made time, maybe you just haven’t had the brain space to analyze, “How can we integrate this into our operations?” And I think that last week on the show, Fred and I talked about the fact that we think that it’s really important for businesses to use this time right now as we’re slogging through the reality of what the coronavirus means to all of us. And it means something different to all of us and our businesses and our personal lives, but to rather than just quickly getting back to the status quo and the way we’ve always done thing, it’s really a good time to just break everything apart and to rethink and to rework your business models now and post pandemics, so that you can say, “We hadn’t really made time for 3D printing before, we hadn’t really thought about how it might change our business operations, how it might speed up this process or it might help fill this gap.”

But when you can step back and consider things like that and consider things like 3D printing, I think that we are going to see a lot of change and a lot of transformation. And we focus on digital transformation a lot, but just transformation in terms of operations, we weren’t really thinking about this before, but now we see firsthand what an impact it can have. It only makes sense for us to integrate this, whether it’s 3D printing or something else into our operation. So I think that that’s really exciting. It’s certainly exciting I think if you’re in the 3D printing business. With that, do you have any words of wisdom as we wrap up our conversation on this topic, Sarah? I know I’m really looking forward to your report being out. I’m sure it’s going to be fantastic, but maybe you have some insights to share before we say goodbye.

Sarah Wallace: Yeah, I would say, kind of as what you said, if you’re a business, reconsidering your operations and how these capabilities and as we talked about, there’s many consortium’s that are online and free for people to collaborate, whether it be your business or you want to connect with the university or a 3D printing manufacturer. So I guess my advice, and as you said, I’m excited to write about this in my report as well, but because of this pandemic, it’s really made a lot of resources available online that I think are very searchable and can really open up collaboration in the future. So just something to keep in mind and keep a lookout for.

Shelly Kramer: Well absolutely, and thank you for that. So I will close by saying thank you very much for hanging out with us. It’s always a pleasure. All of the things that the coalitions, the groups that we talked about earlier in this show, I will include links to them in the show notes, so you’ll have lots of resources there. And then keep an eye out for Sarah’s upcoming Market Insight report on 3D printing and I’m sure she’ll have a lot of great insights there as well.

And with that, this is me signing off. Again, thanks for joining us and we’ll see you next time.