3D Printing Helps Solve Ventilator Shortage During COVID-19

By: Gabrielle Hirneise

Categories: AAMI News

A white, Y-shaped ventilator expansion splitter.

The VESper is a 3D-printed ventilator expansion splitter for emergency use during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Credit: Prisma Health

3D printing technology has had many innovative applications since its origin; however, it has garnered more attention when COVID-19 swept across the globe. A cost-effective and quicker alternative to previous technologies, 3D printing has provided a means to manufacturing materials needed by healthcare providers working at the frontline of the pandemic.

This technology was covered by Cynthia Star, the director of technology transfer at Johnson & Johnson during the webinar “Need Inspires Innovation: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected adoption of 3D printing in medtech?” at the Virtual Engineering’s MedTech event, which took place from Nov. 30 – Dec. 4.

“In response to the global pandemic, J&J established a COVID rapid response team,” Star said. “Our mission was to identify ways to repurpose our supply chain and manufacturing capabilities to help meet urgent needs and shortages, even in areas outside of the products and services we typically supply.”

Though hospitals and other healthcare facilities were in dire need of various materials like PPE and COVID-19 testing kits, the shortage that impacted patients’ outcome the most was the ventilator shortage.

In light of this, hospitals were engineering makeshift ventilator splitters that would allow multiple patients to be hooked up to a single ventilator. With few materials to work with, physicians and nurses were going as far as modifying hair dryers to act as negative pressure chambers and utilizing PVC piping to create new attachments for the few ventilators available.

“Although we commend these industrious individuals [for] doing what was needed to help the patients, we knew there was an urgent need for a device that would enable healthcare facilities to expand their healthcare capacities in safe and reliable ways,” Star said.

The quickest way to get there would be to utilize the rapid and cost-effective 3D printing technologies.

“What was evident is that with local and regional manufacturing, the ability to iterate designs quickly with minimal setup cost and time, 3D printing … could meet the needs of the crisis,” Star said.

Apparently, this was understood by many groups within the industry, as there was an explosion of activity within the 3D printing community. For example, MIT held an academic ventilator challenge to promote innovative ways to overcome the shortage, community designers were making makeshift masks at home using their personal printers, and the NIH 3D Print Exchange saw a rapid uptick in activity, with over 95,000 downloads from the repository since the pandemic was declared, which is a 2500% increase from an equivalent time frame pre-COVID-19.

With extensive manufacturing capabilities and pre-existing 3D printing technologies, J&J saw this as an opportunity to provide support to the COVID-19 efforts.

“2020 will be known as the year where we put our words into action— we were addressing a supply chain crisis, but we had to ensure that whatever 3D print solution we put into action met the requirements of the healthcare ecosystem.”

But 3D printing infrastructure is not enough— they were in need of an idea. Fortunately for J&J, this idea came in March, from physician at Prisma, in the form of 3D-printed Ventilator Expansion Splitter, VESper, which allows healthcare providers to hook two patients up to one ventilator, while adequately filtering out bacteria and viruses and maintaining compliance with ISO standards.

J&J, in collaboration with Prisma, brought the prototype to launch in just 10 days, and on March 25, they received the FDA emergency use authorization.

Starting with 15 printers, with the ability to scale up to 30 in a short period of time, the manufacturing team was able to scale up from producing 300 splitters to 3000 per day, with plans to go up to 6000 per day.

“Looking back, the pandemic crisis gave Prisma and J&J the opportunity to innovate and drive positive change,” Star said. “It was the physician at Prisma that had the original idea, and additive manufacturing that allowed the design to be realized rapidly.”