3D Printing and the Coronavirus

The spread of coronavirus on a global scale is putting medical resources and their supply chains under unprecedented pressure.

3D printing has a major part to play in easing it.

There are various key applications that additive manufacturing has in the medical sector, including bioprinting, surgery preparation, surgical instruments and custom-made prosthetics.

However, with the COVID-19 outbreak, specialist additive manufacturers in Italy have responded rapidly to an urgent requirement for valves used in venturi oxygen masks.

The Venturi System for Oxygen Therapy

The venturi oxygen mask is named after the venturi barrel, which forces a relatively low flow rate of oxygen through a narrowed jet.

The venturi system increases the velocity of gas moving through the mask, while also forcing air through the barrel’s side holes. This creates an accurate mixture of oxygen and air.

By using a valve, the venturi mask can achieve a 24 to 60 per cent oxygen deliver, using high oxygen flow rates.

The flow of gas exceeds the respiratory demands of the patient, which means the mask can deliver a constant, consistent combination of air and oxygen.

This means of administering accurate quantities of oxygen makes the venturi mask the preferred choice in many situations.

The valve is therefore an essential component in intensive care devices, which are themselves vital in helping to treat people with coronavirus.

How Coronavirus affects the lungs

One of the most serious consequences of the COVID-19 coronavirus is its development, in some people, into a more serious illness that features pneumonia.

There are various at-risk groups for whom this is far more of a risk.

These include the elderly and people with underlying health problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and issues with the heart and lungs.

When people with COVID-19 develop a cough and a fever, it indicates the virus has reached passages that enable air to flow between the lungs and the outside, known as the respiratory tree.

Initially, the virus causes inflammation to the respiratory tree, irritating the nerves in the lining of the airway.

However, if this gets worse, the damage can go beyond the lining to the gas exchange units, causing the inflamed air sacs to expel inflammatory material into the lungs. That in turn causes pneumonia.

In this situation, the lungs are unable to deliver sufficient oxygen into the bloodstream, which reduces the body’s ability to absorb oxygen and remove carbon dioxide.

That is what normally causes death from pneumonia.

Treating pneumonia arising from COVID-19

Treating this condition involves ventilating the lungs and maintaining high oxygen levels.

It helps support the functioning of the lungs until they can start working in a normal way again as the patient begins to recover.

There is, however, medical evidence that the pneumonia that comes from COVID-19 can be especially severe.

That risks putting a higher demand on ventilators.

With the rapid increase in coronavirus infections, many medical staff in Italy have found themselves facing huge challenges being able to treat coronavirus patients effectively.

How 3D printing is supporting an Italian hospital

In Italy, the rapid spread of the coronavirus, with many serious infections, has meant that the main means of saving lives has been the use of ventilators.

But for them to be effective, hospitals have needed to have as many working reanimation machines on the go as possible.

With this intensive, constant use, machines are developing faults, requiring spare parts urgently, including the valves that ensure the optimum delivery of oxygen to the patient via the mask.

A 3D printing company in northern Italy has responded to the urgent need for more working intensive care devices in a hospital in Brescia.

This has been one of the hardest hit regions for infections.

The usual supplier was unable to provide the valves the hospital required in a time.

Fortunately the CEO of Isinnova, a local company, was able to bring a 3D printer directly to the hospital where it could then produce the missing pieces.

It required a rapid redesigning and output process.

Initially, there were 10 patients in the hospital using ventilation machines that were using 3D printed valves.

Following this, another local company was able to produce further valves, manufactured from a custom, polyamide-based material.

The benefits of 3D Printing for medical supply chains

Using additive printing methods, you can create virtually any shape that you first draw on a computer.

This has the potential to streamline workflows radically and speed up supply chains.

In the case of Coronavirus, it has already proved to be of enormous value to that hospital in northern Italy.

But the application of additive manufacturing technology in the medical sector goes beyond this rapid response.

It enables mass-customisation within the design-to-delivery process.

So, for example, if a patient requires a specific kind of prosthesis, their specific CT-scan information can be used to create and then print a 3D prototype for testing.

However, 3D printing, as demonstrated in Italy, doesn’t only meet a demand for rapid prototyping; it can fulfil requests for finished components.

It more closely connects the production of an item with its end-purpose and point of use: in Lombardy, the first 3D printed valves were actually output on site, at the hospital.

In the longer term, this form of manufacturing has the potential to transform the dynamics of the medical supply chain.

Disrupting the disruption

Much of the work of medical sectors globally involves dealing with disruption, from the spread of disease to accidents and unexpected events.

As a disruptive technology itself, 3D printing is well-positioned to support medical efforts in combating this disruption and, in the process, it can assist to both preserve and save lives.

For more information about our 3D printing and scanning applications for the medical sector, please use our online contact form, or call us direct on 01527 558 282. And for the latest information on how Central Scanning is responding to the pandemic, see our blog post on coronavirus.

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