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How 3D Printing Can Help Us Weather The Ongoing Pandemic

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The current COVID-19 crisis continues to have a significant impact on us all. Between the number of U.S. deaths tragically surpassing the 250,000 mark, and unemployment at its highest rate since the Second World War, things have been pretty bleak. As the pandemic doesn’t look to be over any time soon, we must find methods to coexist with it for the time being.

This is another area in which the tools of our digital age can be instrumental in providing solutions. Tracing apps are assisting efforts across the world, and artificial intelligence (AI) data processing and analysis may help to aid the search for a vaccine. 3D printing as a manufacturing technology is increasingly making headlines as well for responsiveness in the face of global disruption.

We’re going to take a look at a few key areas in which this accessible form of manufacturing is useful at this time. What challenges can it help us to overcome?

Health

We often look to 3D printing as a way to solve manufacturing problems. But it has a key role to play in the medical industry too. As such it can make a direct and tangible difference to our health in the face of this pandemic.

We understand more about viruses today than at almost any other time. In the case of COVID-19 we’ve very quickly come to understand how it can be spread — through talking, coughing, and sneezing primarily — and who is most at risk. While we also accept that viruses have no cure, this knowledge helps us to understand how we can use 3D printing to help tackle it. 

One of the key challenges both for medical professionals and the public remains obtaining effective personal protective equipment (PPE). Face shields, when used with masks, are a vital component in minimizing exposure for frontline workers and the most vulnerable among us. These can be produced by anybody with a 3D printer. As such, we have been following coordinated efforts of volunteers through projects such as COVID Maker Response. These organizations help home enthusiasts to create shields to the correct standards and distribute them to organizations most in need of them.   

However, it’s not just in the prevention of COVID-19 that 3D printing can make a difference. Once patients are admitted to the hospital, there’s a chance that they’ll need to spend time in intensive care and require ventilation or intubation. To address shortages in these areas, some hospitals have teamed up with 3D printing experts to find creative solutions. One hospital in New York City collaborated with a bioengineer to create a 3D printed adaptor that can turn bi-level positive airway pressure (BiPAP) machines into ventilators. While these are best used as stop-gaps rather than permanent solutions, it helps to demonstrate that 3D printers are a vital creative tool in such emergency scenarios.

Home Life

This pandemic also means that most of us are spending a lot more time at home. Between the necessity for homeschooling and the rise in remote working, the boundaries between our places of respite and office are becoming blurred. In fact, one study reported that 69% of workers were experiencing burnout while working from their homes. 3D printing can have a role to play in making this extra time in our houses a little easier on us.

Firstly, we can make our work and home spaces a little more defined. We can 3D print organizational tools such as pen pots, cable managers to tame the tech spaghetti, and stands for our phone and tablet devices. By keeping these uniform in style we can not only create accoutrements to improve our productivity, it also gives us a clear space to walk away from at the end of the day, rather than utilizing our home and personal items. Circumspectly, we can also make our workspaces more personalized. If your home workspace is dull, and affecting your morale, craft beautiful objects — interesting vases, fun figurines, customized accessories — to set around your work area to brighten the mood.

This time at home also gives us extra opportunities to improve our living spaces in general. If we have to work and learn there too, we might as well make it the best possible environment. Some of these can be purely aesthetic — lighting fixtures, plant pots, clocks, and even plug sockets are among the popular projects DIY 3D printers are taking on. However, it’s also worth noting that you can use your printer to affect the value of your home too. Bathroom fixtures such as faucets and medicine cabinets can be stylized to give a look that isn’t available in your average hardware store. Your front door and garage can be imbued with 3D printed handles that give your home a unique look.  

Preparedness

Few of us expected COVID-19 to have such an impact. It caught us off guard, and this in turn led to panicked and irrational responses. The toilet roll shortage remains one of the most baffling elements! Even though we are past the early stages of this pandemic, we’re not out of the woods. 3D printing can help bolster our emergency preparedness at this time. 

If a member of your household becomes infected, you can 3D print items that can help keep the household safe. Aside from the aforementioned face shields, you can create hands-free door openers that help minimize contamination. Family members may have to wear their face masks in the home all the time, which can lead to chafing and skin damage around the ears. We can 3D print mask straps that connect masks at the back of the head and eliminate the potential for injury and even infection here.

Let’s not forget that there is immense strain being put on hospitals, and we often want to avoid using them unless absolutely necessary. 3D printing can provide some first aid solutions that can help us here. You can print a custom wrap-around splint for strains to your wrists or ankles. With some printed brackets and fabric, competent field tourniquets can also be fashioned. You can even create a single-use stethoscope if you find you need one! (And of course remember to always seek medical attention when it’s needed!)

Conclusion

3D printers are versatile tools. Situations such as this pandemic can help us discover just how important they can be. Between emergency supplies, medical components, and keeping us sane in our homes, this home manufacturing method could — perhaps literally — be a lifesaver.

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