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Coronavirus pandemic | Startups 3D print ventilator parts, visors to bridge shortfall

Indian startups working with hospitals, doctors to 3D print products and components that can help in capacity expansion for healthcare professionals

March 27, 2020 / 12:41 PM IST

A ventilator is what stands between life and death as coronavirus tightens its grip over the world, with infections inching close to the 535,000-mark and death toll going past 24,000. India has, so far, reported 727 infections and 17 deaths.

As cases tick up in India, ventilators, which are in a short supply, are the biggest worry. If there is community spread, healthcare professionals will have to choose who gets life support and who does not.

To help the healthcare sector manage this potential crisis, 3D printing startups are looking at doubling or trebling capacity at hospitals in the quickest possible time.

Bengaluru-based 3D design startup Ethereal Machines is trying to design splitters that can split the airflow from one ventilator and support two patients. But creating such splitters is not easy.

“Ideally, the airflow should be split 50/50 to support two patients but that is not the case always--one patient might have stiffer lungs than the other, in that case, airflow needs to be regulated 70/30 or 60/40, we are prototyping devices which can help such cases,” said Kaushik Mudda, cofounder of Ethereal Machines.

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The startup is testing valves that can regulate the flow of air. They are 3D printing the components that can ensure air only flows in one direction and the patient gets fresh oxygen. For components, they are relying on multiple polylactic acid, multiple epoxy resin-based products and different polycarbonates.

Some other players are also trying three or four-way splitters. These designs are still being tested and will be used only after getting a nod from medical professionals.

Breathing trouble

The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), as the novel coronavirus has been named, causes respiratory distress and in severe cases, patients’ lungs lose their capacity to pump fresh oxygen into the bloodstream. A ventilator helps such patients breathe by artificially pumping oxygen through their windpipe.

Media reports put the number of ventilators in the country anywhere between 17,000 and 57,000, which is not enough to treat patients if the virus spreads as it has in Italy, Spain and the US.

This shortfall is the reason startups are looking to 3D print ventilators and also create products that can expand the existing capacity. Corporates like Mahindra and Mahindra have said they will manufacture ventilators to support the country in these tough times.

When the demand is huge and the timeline is short, traditional manufacturing is not enough. 3D printing enables quick and price-effective production and if the prototypes work well, mass production can follow.

Mudda has created a list of more than 80 companies across the country --from Pune to Kolkata—which can take their designs and print the products and ship them to hospitals.

They are also creating face shields that can protect frontline healthcare professionals so that droplets from patients don’t infect them.

“We have created 20 face shields already and shipped to hospitals through our partners, we will try to create 100 more in the next couple of days,” said Harsha Madalam, chief technology officer, Soch3D which is into 3D printing. “We are also trying to design and manufacture sanitisation machines, which can UV treat gloves, masks, etc.”

Soch3D is working with the 3D printing and designing ecosystem of the country that is trying to leverage technology in this hour of crisis.

Moneycontrol recently wrote how Agva Healthcare, which has created the world’s cheapest ventilator, is trying to ramp up production to meet the demand.

But with the country in lockdown, logistics is a major hurdle.

Like Agva, which is facing difficulty in sourcing components, Mudda of Ethereal Machines received orders for 1,000 visors from doctors in Kashmir but doesn’t know how to send the consignment. He even sourced a supplier in Mumbai but sending the face shields to Kashmir is a logistical nightmare.

Will India 3D print its way out of this medical emergency? Will these prototypes be successful enough to be adopted across hospitals and their production scaled up? The answer lies in testing and more testing.

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Pratik Bhakta
first published: Mar 27, 2020 12:41 pm