Turning to DIY Options for Needed COVID-19 Equipment

From 3D printing to plastic bags, researchers, doctors, and companies are getting creative to handle medical supply shortages during the pandemic

Rachel Muenz

Editor's note: This article has been updated from a previous version.

With hospitals and clinical labs facing a shortage of pretty much everything needed to manage the influx of COVID-19 patients in their facilities, key medical supplies such as personal protective equipment and ventilators remain at the top of the list of most needed equipment.

Turning to cheap and readily available materials, researchers and companies are creating DIY designs to fill the supply chain gap. 

"If we can't get them from commercial or government sources, we're going to have to make them ourselves."

At the Georgia Institute of Technology, a research team and its manufacturing partners are rushing to create designs for hot commodities such as ventilators, respirator masks, face shields, disinfectant wipes, and hand sanitizer, using products that would be found near most hospitals.

As of Mar. 23, the group from Georgia Tech and the Global Center for Medical Innovation have 3D-printed more than 1,000 face shields, designed with input from their partners at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory Healthcare, and Piedmont Healthcare.

"Countries on the trailing end of the pandemic are facing supply chain issues that countries with earlier pandemics didn't have to face," said Michael O'Toole, executive director of quality improvement at Piedmont, in a press release. "We've got to get these supplies, and it’s a critical need already. If we can't get them from commercial or government sources, we're going to have to make them ourselves."

Also helping in the effort to produce face shields, students at Iowa State University's Computation and Construction Lab have been working to 3D print the equipment for hospitals in that state. Face shields are important as they can extend the life of N95 face masks.

“Our work can sometimes seem esoteric, but the need for PPE has brought the best out of the fabrication and design community,” said Shelby Doyle, assistant professor of architecture at Iowa State, in a press release.

For ventilators, the Georgia Tech team is working with researchers from the UK’s Cranfield University to develop a temporary device. The Atlanta-based university is also searching for containers for sanitizing wipes as the ingredients themselves seem to be available, and are developing alternatives to the elusive N95 respirator mask using items such as HVAC filter materials. The school’s Renewable Bioproducts Institute is also exploring if the machines used to produce plastic party tablecloths could be switched to produce surgical gowns.

According to a Georgia Tech press release, the team should have their designs ready soon, which they plan to share openly with other groups to help in the worldwide fight against COVID-19.

Editor's note: Since this story published, the Global Center for Medical Innovation has revised its design files for face shields, which can be accessed here.

At the University of Florida, the College of Medicine's department of anesthesiology partnered with the university's wind engineering laboratory to produce intubation technology for ventilators and face shields for health workers.

There are plenty of examples of similar efforts elsewhere in the world.

Related Infographic: Protecting Yourself Against COVID-19

In Canada, a doctor at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital came up with an on-the-fly solution to protect health care workers when removing ventilator tubes from patient’s throats. Patients typically cough a lot during the procedure, potentially spreading virus-containing droplets to hospital staff.

After testing the method on himself, Matthew Ko, a respiratory therapist at Mount Sinai, put a large, clear plastic bag over a patient during the procedure, filling it with a mix of helium and oxygen to keep it in place. 

“[When] we pulled the tube out with a bag around him, he gave a big couple of coughs, which were contained in the bag,” Dr. Stephen Lapinsky, director to the intensive care unit at Mount Sinai, told CTV News.

The doctors are working on improving the process and have posted a video of the procedure online for the benefit of other hospitals.

3D printing community supports COVID-19 efforts

In addition, plenty of companies on both sides of the border are 3D printing parts for critical medical supplies during the crisis. For example, Massachusetts-based Formlabs, which normally produces 3D printers, has launched a support network for COVID-19. The program matches health care providers with Formlabs customers willing to use their 3D printers to print needed medical supplies, according to the company’s website. So far, 2,300 volunteers have signed up.

Through this initiative, the company is supporting efforts to produce 3D-printed nasal swabs for COVID-19 diagnostic tests, ventilator splitters, face shields, fully validated respirators, and conversion kits to turn snorkels into filters. They are working with clinical partners to ensure the products are safe and follow guidelines from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

Currently, only the 3D printed swabs have been approved and Formlab partners USF Health and Northwell Health are printing the supplies at their FDA-registered facility in Ohio.

“Formlabs is dedicated to helping the medical community address the COVID-19 epidemic and associated supply chain shortages with 3D printing technology,” the company says on its website. “We are working closely with health systems, government agencies, and our network of over 2,300 volunteers to help design, prototype, and produce parts to be tested and potentially adopted by clinicians.”