Indian research institutions and companies have started banking on 3D printing as a quick fix.
Divide By Zero Technologies (DBZ), a Navi Mumbai-based manufacturer of industrial 3D printers, is in overdrive to produce face shields to protect healthcare workers on the frontline from potential COVID-19 infection.
What started early this month in a small way to supply face shields to doctors and other healthcare staff in COVID-19 wards of Mumbai's Nair Hospital, has expanded to other hospitals in the city such as Sion Hospital, Kasturba Hospital, MGM Hospital, among others. Even the Indian army has placed an order for 25,000 face shields.
In about three weeks DBZ has managed to manufacture 45,000 face shields.
Safety equipment shortage
India is scrambling to address the shortage of ventilators, personal safety equipment and UV sterilisation robots. High import dependency and a broken supply chain globally are making matters worse for procuring medical devices. Against this backdrop, Indian research institutions and companies have started banking on 3D printing as a quick fix.
A typical 3D printer is very much like an inkjet printer operated from a computer. It prints 3D objects by successively adding material (usually liquid plastic) in layers according to the instructions of the computer file. The process is called additive manufacturing.
The technology evolved from being primarily used to build prototypes, to make machine tooling and even certain low-volume components. Unlike traditional manufacturing, 3D printing is distributed, which means it needs a computer file containing the design, measurements and 3D printer to print the component.
Companies like DBZ that manufacture 3D printers and are well networked with the 3D printing eco-system have suddenly became sought after entities.
"Initially we started printing the entire face shield on 3D printer. We could do around 1,000 shields a day using 5-7 machines. But that isn't enough given the demand, so we 3D printed the moulding tool as well. Using moulding tool we scaled up production. Around 80 percent of the 45,000 face shields came from us, the remaining 20 percent came from 3D printers at our customer sites," said Swapnil Sansare, the CEO and founder of DBZ.
Face shields have three main components: a plastic headband, a clear plastic sheet called visor and an elastic. The three parts are joined together by clipping the plastic sheet into the headband, which is secured to the head of the person wearing an elastic band.
Swapnil says that after the outbreak of COVID-19, the 3D printing community across the globe have come together on an open-source platform to share designs, sourcing materials and 3D printing machines.
"There is no profit motive here, it's to help the country at the hour of crisis," Swapnil said, adding that "the 3D fraternity has done 8-10 lakh face shields in India."
It isn't DBZ alone, another Mumbai-based startup Boson Machines has been 3D printing face shields. Even academic institutions like IITs, NITs and petrochemical to automotive companies have all been helping each other in providing armour to COVID warriors.
A face shield is a simple protective gear, but Swapnil says 3D printing can also do complex medical devices such as ventilators that help patients breathe, ventilator splitters that allow a single ventilator to be used by multiple patients, and UV sterilisation robots for disinfecting hospital rooms, among other applications.
Swapnil says about 60-70 percent of a mechanical ventilator can be made using 3D printers. They are already working with IIT-Bombay, Tata Motors and a UK-based startup on these projects.
Started in 2013, DBZ has so far supplied 700 3D printers, most of it in India. It employs around 30 people.
The company which is growing at a decent pace since inception, however, had a challenging first half of FY20 as the auto industry that uses 3D printing machines have been facing a slump.
Swapnil said the business started seeing some momentum from the third quarter.
The company was close to signing a contract to supply a laser-assisted high-speed 3D printing machine to a German client. The German order is an important one for the company, not just financially, but to prove a point that a small Indian company is capable of producing technologically complex machines like a 3D printer.
As executives at DBZ were busy finalising the order, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, disrupting supply chains, logistics and forcing countries to impose lockdowns. Like most other companies the 30 odd employees at DBZ were also confined to home.
While the lockdown is threatening to derail the company's business plan for the year, Swapnil said he started getting calls from a team at IIT- Bombay and also his clients like Tata Motors asking whether he will be able to assist in building ventilators, face shields, UV sterilisation robots using 3D printing.
"After the COVID-19 crisis, 3D printing will not be the same again," Swapnil said.
He also asks the government to create 3D printing hubs and provide incentives to encourage manufacturers of these printers.