Formlabs has revealed a comprehensive and well-thought out program for their response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Many companies are scrambling to contribute their resources and expertise to the crisis, but Formlabs has set a very good example that other companies may consider following.
As we’ve written earlier, there is an enormous amount of energy ready to do “something”, but I fear that some or most of that effort could be spent on less-than-suitable projects. Formlabs, on the other hand, has developed a sophisticated approach that should be able to provide good solutions in a very specific area.
One of Formlabs’ unique capabilities in this area is the technology of their 3D printers. It turns out that filament extrusion, the technology used by the majority of 3D printer manufacturers, is essentially unusable for most biocompatible applications. The issues of print porosity and low temperature resistance are the main barriers. The exception is high-temperature materials, but there are relatively few high-temperature 3D printers available.
Instead, Formlabs uses the SLA approach for 3D printing, which provides essentially pore-free prints. The other interesting angle on SLA 3D printing is that the materials used can actually provide high temperature resistance.
With this capability, what did Formlabs do to contribute to crisis management?
Formlabs COVID-19 Response
Formlabs wisely focused their efforts on solving a single crisis issue: patient testing. If you’re not aware, testing requires an (I’m told) uncomfortable nasal sample collection using a rather long swab. After the swab collects the sample, the apparatus is broken apart and the “wet” end is placed in a sealed bag for testing.
Thus, if you think about the process of testing you would need a technician to administer the test, sample bags, transport, lab analyses and test swabs. That’s what they’re working on. They say:
“Formlabs is now using its 250+ in-house 3D printers at its Ohio-based printing facility to produce up to 150,000 COVID-19 test swabs per day. The swabs are being used on patients at hospitals and health providers across the country experiencing test kit shortages, including New York’s largest hospital system, Northwell Health, and Tampa General Hospital, to help ramp up testing.”
One of my issues with anyone producing medical gear is the issue of certification. In these times we find organizations and even individuals developing designs for medical equipment who have no idea of how to do it properly. As for Formlabs, they explain how they went about executing this project:
“Over the span of one weekend, Formlabs, Northwell Health, and USF Health worked together to develop a nasal swab prototype and test it in the lab. In just two days, USF Health and Northwell, using Formlabs’ 3D printers and autoclavable resins, developed prototypes that received a variety of hospital approvals, and have now received FDA Class I Exempt status and are in compliance with new guidelines from the CDC. These nasopharyngeal swabs will be provided to patients at Northwell Health and USF Health, and the design will be shared with other institutions across the country via Formlabs COVID-19 Response page.”
In addition to having proper materials to make this device, Formlabs was able to leverage their equipment to maximize the production. Above you see the print job setup, where they’ve Tetris-ed in as many swabs as could possibly fit into the build volume.
Here you can see the result, a fully utilized build volume that has produced by my count 221 swabs in a single print job. By 3D printing this job on multiple devices, it’s no surprise they can produce this startling number of swabs per day, and it seems as many as 1M per week. Astonishing!
There’s some wisdom here. The most important thing is that they worked directly with health authorities. Thus Formlabs knew precisely what was needed, and had some access to those who knew how to design the solution so that it could achieve certification.
In the end they have produced a truly usable design that fills a true need. This is the right way to proceed: solving a problem.
I encourage every 3D print company to examine Formlabs’ effective process and see if the same approach could be used in your region.
Formlabs Matching Service
And more specifically, I also encourage readers in the USA to visit Formlabs’ COVID-19 response page, where the company has formed a “support network” of Formlabs operators. They explain:
“This is an initiative to match healthcare organizations and providers with Formlabs customers who are willing to use their printers and volunteer their time to help address critical supply chain shortages and other healthcare needs. We are working closely with health systems, government agencies, and our network of over 1,500 volunteers to help design, prototype, and produce parts to be tested and potentially adopted by clinicians.”
Well done, Formlabs.