These days I am wondering whether some of the more unusual 3D printing solutions are being properly leveraged to solve the ongoing crisis.
There are perhaps thousands of 3D printer operators, CAD designers and others around the world attempting to use available 3D printing tech to produce necessary items.
In most of these projects, standard 3D printing technology is being used, which naturally constrains the types of solutions that could be produced. This is due to the type of materials or other characteristics of the machines being utilized.
That’s a natural thing: 3D printers are not magic replicators that can produce anything on demand, as much as the public would like them to be. Nevertheless, there is still some of that sentiment in the public.
Metal Ventilator Valves
In one recent exchange I discussed the idea of 3D printed ventilator valves with an engineer working with a group to make that happen. I suggested that the specifications required for a properly functioning valve would be well beyond the capability of most 3D printers and their materials, and the engineer made an interesting suggestion: produce them in metal.
I’m led to believe that these valves are complex to produce and thus are typically made from plastics and considered a replaceable consumable. Thus, there would be a demand for many of them. However, if they part were produced in metal, they could be easily sterilized using conventional methods in a hospital and reused. It may be that a metal ventilator valve could be worth many times more usage than a normal one, but my knowledge of ventilator science is obviously quite limited.
However, I do know that ventilators make use of airways and must produce consistent, controllable and measurable airflow for patients. Some of these airflows pass through rather narrow channels within the valve, even as small as 1mm diameter. That’s pretty tight.
My advice to the engineer was that producing such parts on typical powder bed fusion metal 3D printers would likely be infeasible because the surface texture would disturb the airflow noticeably, particularly on the narrowest channels. That can’t be good for a device upon which airflow is paramount.
I can’t imagine how one would smooth these tiny interior airways on a metal 3D print.
Then I had an idea.
High-Resolution Metal 3D Printing
There is one manufacturer of very high-resolution 3D prints that I’m pretty certain could produce these valves or other metal medical equipment components with sufficiently smooth surfaces: Sweden-based Digital Metal.
Digital Metal has a rather unique metal 3D printing process that involves a cold binding process followed by a thermal fusion. They are able to produce incredibly smooth and finely detailed objects as you can see in these images.
It seems to me they should be able to produce metal versions of the ventilator valve, if asked. But have they been asked? I asked them if they were involved in this effort.
Digital Metal Efforts
The reply was that they currently are not working with any party on this type of part, but are quite willing to do so. I got the impression they needed a connection to someone who is working on developing these detailed medical components.
I know their DM P2500 unit has a build volume of 203 x 180 x 69 mm, and thus it might be possible to cram in quite a few valves on a single print job. They’ve also recently tripled their print speed, enabling the production of even more pieces.
In Ultimaker Cura I simulated a relatively full print bed of those dimensions and was able to place 26 small valves. Thus it’s possible Digital Metal could produce reasonable quantities of these items.
However, as far as I know no one requiring metal ventilator valves has contacted them as yet. If you know of someone who may be interested in this possibility, please give us a shout and we can connect you to the right people at Digital Metal.
Via Digital Metal