John Wilczynski, head of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, believes the big mobilization of 3D printing to churn out protective gear during the pandemic could become a public turning point for his industry.
Too often additive manufacturing technology has been seen as more for making "trinkets and toys," he said, particularly for those outside specialized manufacturing circles.
But the response from the 3D printing industry to supply face shields, masks and other kit over the last two months, along with consistent local and national news coverage, are helping the general public see the industry's capabilities, he said.
"We have proven the validity of the technology," he said. "I think this will open a lot of folks' eyes to the capabilities of this technology and ultimately its long-term play in the manufacturing community."
He spoke at a May 11 virtual conference hosted by the Youngstown, Ohio-based NAMII, also known as America Makes, with government officials who have been working closely with the additive manufacturing industry to ramp up and make personal protective gear to fight COVID-19.
That response has included America Makes and government agencies developing new or expanded online platforms for connecting those in need with those who can manufacture, as well as a National Institutes of Health repository of hundreds of downloadable designs.
Not all of it is aimed at doctors and nurses. Some of it has gone toward PPE for people working in grocery stores or restaurants.
While Wilczynski and other panelists said they couldn't quantify the impact from additive manufacturing in numbers, they said it's been crucial to supplying the PPE needed, especially in the early stages before technology like injection molding could fully ramp up.
"We've seen it play a significant role in face shields; it's really filling a gap in the conventional supply chain for face shields," he said.
Beth Ripley, a medical doctor and chair of the Veterans Health Administration 3D Printing Advisory Committee, said the fast pivot from the industry has been critical.
"This is untapped manufacturing capability at a time when traditional manufacturers are really pressed to put out products," she said. "The ability to rapidly tap into that manufacturing capacity is huge."
The design flexibility of additive manufacturing has been helpful in improving face shield designs in ways that hospitals have liked, she said.
In two separate cases, manufacturers paired up with hospitals and made quick improvements in traditional face shield designs. She said over a few days, they were able to accommodate the masks and rework visor design to maintain barriers against fluids.
"They came up with a really cool enhanced product," Ripley said. "That happened in two separate instances in two separate designs that have been really popular across multiple hospitals."
While most of the work has focused on simpler medical devices like PPE, many of which would not require Food and Drug Administration review, at times around the world 3D printing has stepped in to make critical parts.
The panel noted an incident in Italy that got widespread media coverage, where 3D printing labs stepped in to make parts for ventilators, when hospitals badly needed new parts but the original manufacturer could not supply them quickly enough.
"We know the ventilator parts they printed in Italy when they could not get something from the original manufacturer, that did save lives," said Meghan McCarthy, program lead for 3D Printing Biovisualization at the National Institutes of Health.
McCarthy said the NIH website of downloaded designs has more than 500 blueprints of PPE, with 18 having gone through clinical review with the Veterans Administration.
Like the other panelists, she noted strong interest, with NIH having to add cloud infrastructure early on to handle demand on its website.
"It was a lot; we sort of opened the flood gates," McCarthy said.
Some of the audience questions to the panel focused on what potential liability additive manufacturing companies would have expanding from simpler PPE shields and masks into making critical parts in equipment like ventilators.
One panelist noted that the NIH website has a section for community-use PPE, and companies and groups that may not have the technology or access to the materials needed to make surgical equipment can still make those products.
"I think there's a real need, a real opportunity for the everyday maker to fill that gap," McCarthy said. "I think there's a lot of opportunities, besides grocery workers, for restaurant servers, prisons, things like that."
Some parts of the medical industry have extensively adopted 3D printing technology in the last five years, particularly in orthopedics, hearing aids and dentistry, but others could give it more consideration now, said Matt Di Prima, a materials scientist with the Food and Drug Administration.
Hospitals, in particular, are showing a lot more interest in 3D printing themselves as a result of the pandemic, he said.
But Di Prima sounded some caution on whether the coronavirus response will shift business models substantially around additive manufacturing.
"There are lots of changes that AM could bring based on people's experience from the pandemic," he said. "[But] I think we're too close to fully understand what's going to happen.
"There's certainly been a lot of interesting innovation as a result of the device shortages," he said. "The question is going to be, in a year when traditional manufacturing is sort of caught up, do those innovative designs that you can only make with additive, are they still cost-effective and do they stick around?"