As Covid-19 raced across the globe, health care systems faced shortages in personal protective equipment. This essential gear became more costly, and there was greater reliance on imports for it. 3D printing suddenly and urgently became a critical tool for managing the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, and other medical equipment.

Manufacturers worldwide began donating their equipment to create face shields and ventilators. Companies in the industrial 3D printing and design industries, including my company, Dassault Systèmes, shared designs for PPE and software licenses. Makers, students, professors, hobbyists, inventors, designers, and engineers scattered across the globe initiated their own 3D printing projects.

These life-protecting collaborations showed how industry, academia, and private citizens can rise to a challenge like Covid-19. Yet something was missing: an accessible and open platform to “glue” all of these disparate elements into a connected community.

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In the perfect storm of Covid-19, the shortage of PPE and vital medical equipment and the adoption of 3D printing to make them revealed a disconnect between needs and solutions: Which hospitals needed equipment urgently, and what types of equipment did they need? How could they acquire equipment when businesses and cities were on lockdown? What types of PPE are most effective, and could they be adapted for SARS-CoV-2, or even improved upon?

To bridge these and other gaps, Dassault Systèmes launched OPENCovid19, an open online community* (links marked with an asterisk are freely available but require registration on the community site).

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Binding a lifeline

As frontline health professionals and first responders battle the novel coronavirus, people have come together to forge innovative ways of communicating and pooling resources, knowledge, and know-how. This urgent need has highlighted the contributions of collective intelligence that is driving the quick and efficient delivery of critically needed 3D printed solutions. These have ranged from a smart ventilator prototype* developed by a startup in India within eight days of conceptualizing the product to a ventilator in Mexico* that is now certified by the country’s Ministry of Health to a head strap* that holds a plastic face shield designed by a team of engineering students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the U.S.

Collaborative digital platforms catalyze this kind of united front to deliver on the promise and potential of 3D printing. They enable connections between people and projects in different parts of the world, gathering and federating disparate forces in a symbiotic endeavor to source, co-engineer, certify, and deploy devices to be easily 3D printed for localized needs in record time.

Hundreds of people and organizations joined collaborative efforts in the online community within less than a month of its launch. They are sharing ideas and designs, leveraging access to mentoring from experts, and nurturing projects to maturity. This open innovation spans the initial validation of the project’s feasibility in terms of production and applicability that uses software, design, and engineering expertise to shape a product and extends to the medical feedback phase that identifies its value.

Through this online community, engineers can optimize designs and materials for 3D printing. Designers can make older designs stronger and faster for it. Medical experts can test and validate PPE or ventilator splitters, giving insights on needed improvements, before they are fabricated.

Simulation experts have worked with designers to optimize 3D-printed face shield projects* by simulating the trajectory of a human sneeze. That information was used to rapidly explore shield design, including length, width, and distance between individuals. Scientific mentoring identified where particles dropped onto and below the shield, and what aspects of the shield’s design could be improved.

Connecting these dots from idea to maturity is imperative, but it needs to go further: to online marketplaces and fabrication labs (“Fab Labs”) with certified factories that use supported materials and processes, and that have provided the specifications of their machines, in a secured environment. Their 3D printing capabilities have been a lifeline for regions severely hit by the virus. Online vendors such as Amazon offer access to a community of suppliers and manufacturers for sourcing relevant 3D printed components and products from suppliers in locations that can still deliver. Fab Labs, part of the nonprofit Fab Foundation, offer to 3D print, experiment, and prototype. The Labs are being geomapped with hospitals to answer calls for help and fulfill specific needs locally and urgently.

This is happening in both North America and Europe: NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital’s need for personal protective equipment was shared in an online community that identified the nearest Fab Lab and put the hospital in touch with it within minutes. St. Francis Hospital in Marange-Silvange in northeastern France — one of the hardest-hit regions in the country — collaborated with a nearby Fab Lab to 3D print face shields before France’s expected peak in infections.

Delivering on the promise

Times of crisis expose strengths and weaknesses in our levels of preparedness and response. 3D printing bolstered by collective intelligence is answering the health care world’s call to help save lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic shows that it’s time to move 3D printing beyond its use in research labs and prototyping and into mainstream use.

The potential of this technology, however, is only as great as the communities that rally around it and weave a fabric of true collaboration. The momentum of collective intelligence catalyzed and enabled by digital platforms must stay strong as long as Covid-19 is with us, remain strong after it has faded, and provide binding and lasting connections to the world’s tremendous knowledge, know-how, and manufacturing resources. The communities and organizations involved must explore and test new designs, materials, and uses to fight future viruses at scale.

Without collective intelligence, the support provided to health care workers, first responders, and their patients would not have been possible during this pandemic, and won’t be possible during the next one.

Frédéric Vacher is the head of innovation and #3DExperienceLab at Dassault Systèmes, where he oversees the kinds of efforts described here, including connecting hospitals to 3D printers.

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