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A Ford worker unloads face shield parts from a 3D printer. (Photo: Ford)

The nationwide shortage of medical equipment to fight the coronavirus pandemic seems like a breakthrough opportunity for 3D printing technology. But in this urgent crisis, its uses are limited.

Why it matters: America needs to manufacture tens of thousands of ventilators and billions of face masks and other protective gear in the next few weeks, and then distribute them in a hurry to hospitals around the country to ward off the worst-case public health scenarios.

Reality check: Industrial-scale 3D printing could help in a few scenarios, like making fast prototypes or fabricating plastic face shields, but it will not save the day when it comes to the most urgent needs, which are ventilators and N95 respirator masks.

How it works: There are an estimated 47,000 industrial-scale 3D printers installed in the U.S., according to Forbes, most of them idled at the moment due to coronavirus-related industry shutdowns.

  • With the proper digital instructions, companies and even do-it-yourselfers can start fabricating objects almost immediately using a 3D printer.
  • Known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing "grows" an object one thin layer of plastic — or metal — at a time.
  • With multiple machines, even in different locations, it is feasible to 3D print thousands of small components fairly quickly.
  • But the technology is not as fast, or as consistent, as traditional manufacturing methods like injection molding, says Carnegie Mellon engineering Professor Jack Beuth, an expert in the field.
  • While it takes longer to get traditional manufacturing up and running, "with injection molding, you can outrun 3D printing pretty quickly," Beuth says.

Even more daunting are the regulatory hurdles that make 3D printing impractical for making medical device components.

  • Manufacturing life-saving equipment is subject to rigorous certification protocols, which takes time.
  • "You can’t just say, 'I’m going to print it, it looks good, we’re good to go'," said Beuth.

Yes, but: There is still a role for 3D printing technology to help in the fight against the virus.

  • Ford, for example, is prototyping transparent face shields for medical workers and first responders, with the goal of producing more than 100,000 per week.
  • Carbon, a Silicon Valley 3D printing company, is making face shields and test swabs, writes Forbes.
  • HP has designed 3D-printed parts, including hands-free door openers, mask adjusters and face shields, per Forbes, and is working on parts for a field ventilator.

What's needed: Medical device companies should start working now to certify 3D printed components for backup use when the next crisis hits, says Beuth.

  • "It’s not really a technical challenge," he says. "It’s the delay in introducing a new manufacturing process."

Go deeper

Updated 15 mins ago - Health

COVID-19 Omicron variant cases identified in Europe, U.K.

People wearing masks walk in London on Nov. 25. Photo: Li Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images

Health officials in the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany announced on Saturday that they've detected the first known cases of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Why it matters: The discoveries come as the world scrambles to respond to concerns over the new variant, discovered in South Africa earlier this week.

Black Friday shopping up from 2020 but trails pre-pandemic levels

Shoppers carry their purchases during Black Friday shopping at Fashion Outlets of Chicago in Rosemont of Greater Chicago Area, Illinois on Nov. 26, 2021. Photo: Joel Lerner/Xinhua via Getty Images

More shoppers flocked to stores on Black Friday this year compared to last, but online shopping was lower than expected, according to data from Friday.

Driving the news: Online shopping was on the lower end of what was expected, largely because people had been ringing up their shopping carts earlier in the year in an effort to skirt potential supply chain issues, according to the Adobe Digital Economy Index.

Trump can't quit mainstream media

Bob Woodward and Robert Costa are interviewed by Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press" in September. Photo: William B. Plowman/NBC via Getty Images

Bob Woodward and Robert Costa issued a rebuttal on Friday to a statement by former President Donald Trump that misrepresented their reporting — and once again showed the 45th president's thin skin about mainstream media.

Driving the news: "Former President Trump said ... our book, 'Peril,' implied that he was planning to go to war with China," the statement begins. "[W]e report that Chairman of Joint Chiefs Mark Milley 'believed that Trump did not want a war' before or after the 2020 election."

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