One of the benefits of 3D printing that’s kept the technology in the front lines against COVID-19 has been its speed — and now we need to look at SPEE3D too.
Most of the time right now when we’re talking the speed of 3D printing it’s turning around personal protective equipment (PPE) and other necessary supplies in the span of a day or a week, as a stop-gap solution as traditional mass manufacturing ramps up. But in a turn of “now for something completely different,” Australia-based SPEE3D has developed a lab-proven process that goes in a unique direction.
Touch surfaces — think door push panels, handles, rails, and other surfaces that are routinely touched — are among the common means of transferring SARS-CoV-2, the virus that leads to COVID-19.
3D printing has been addressing this challenge, most often in the form of simply circumventing the need to touch those surfaces. That’s certainly a valid option, and one proving very popular as the quick-to-print devices allow for hands-free door opening, and a variety of options are popping up. These devices, though, should still be frequently disinfected, just as all contact surfaces in general should be.
Plastic and stainless steel, which cover many touch surfaces, can certainly be disinfected. But what about between-cleanings contamination? SPEE3D makes a few points here:
“Touching contaminated objects, known as fomite transmission, was suspected during the 2003 SARS-CoV-1 epidemic and analysis of a nosocomial SARS57 CoV-1 superspreading event concluded that touching contaminated objects (fomites) played a significant role.”
They also note of stainless steel and plastic surfaces that “recent studies [show] that SARS-CoV-2 can survive on these materials for up to three days.”
SPEE3D is known for its high-speed metal 3D printing technology, which uses a supersonic spray method. Many of the parts made this way are effective for relatively rough use, as the resolution of this technology isn’t especially fine — but it is capable of producing parts with copper and other traditionally difficult-to-3D-print materials, and doing so quite quickly.
The team has recently developed a way to rapidly 3D print copper onto metal surfaces, leveraging an important quality of the metal: it’s antimicrobial.
These antimicrobial qualities have long been put to use, even before the direct discovery of microbes/bacteria/viruses in the 19th century. Contact with copper can kill a virus — more precisely, inactivate it, as viruses aren’t technically alive — disallowing its further spread. SPEE3D illustrates this ‘contact kill’:
Employing copper on a touch surface is a passive protective measure that can provide another layer of safety against viral transmission.
SPEE3D calls their new process ACTIVAT3D copper, and they took it to 360Biolabs to back up the idea. The Australian NATA-accredited clinical trial specialty laboratory examined the use of antimicrobial copper on touch surfaces. 360Biolabs tested ACTIVAT3D copper in their lab, comparing this material to the performance of stainless steel, each exposed to live SARS-CoV-2. SPEE3D reports:
“The results showed that 96% of the virus is killed in two hours and 99.2% of the virus killed in 5 hours, while stainless steel showed no reduction in the same time frame. Stainless steel is currently the material typically used in hygiene environments.”
The ACTIVAT3D copper process requires all of five minutes of 3D printing to coat a stainless steel door touch plate or other handle.
Further highlighting the speed with which SPEE3D’s now lab-proven solution can be applied, the team sent digital print files to partners around the world. Within days, they say, copper fixtures were installed on a few continents, including at Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Swinburne University in Melbourne, and the University of Delaware, as well as installations in Japan.
“We recognized the importance of developing simple, yet highly impactful, solutions that have been proven effective on COVID-19. Recognizing supply chain shortfalls over the last couple of months, it was clear to this team that fabrication speed was a priority. Using this technology, we are able to rapidly transition safe options for high-touch surfaces,” said Larry (LJ) Holmes, Assistant Director of Digital Design and Additive Manufacturing at the University of Delaware.
This development is certainly promising, especially with lab results to back it up. As with every other piece of the antiviral puzzle, mind, this measure is not a complete solution in and of itself; copper-coated surfaces are less likely to allow for viral spread, but you can never be totally sure of the last time a surface was touched, or by whom. Measures to reduce risk do not remove risk.
We would like to remind everyone, as always: be smart, wash your hands, do your part to help slow and stop viral spread.