“The coronavirus crisis is the coming of age for 3D printing”
“We are collaborating with three hospitals to develop healthcare equipment”
“What is happening with 3D printing will have a direct impact on interest in scientific careers”
Felip Fenollosa, holder of a PhD in industrial engineering from the Barcelona School of Industrial Engineering (ETSEIB), is head of Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM UPC), a technology centre of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) specialised in production technologies. Part of his work is focused on additive manufacturing, which uses 3D printing. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Fenollosa has led a team of professionals who are working every day to design, programme and produce equipment like masks and mechanical ventilators for hospitals.
How and when did collaboration with the health system start in the coronavirus crisis?
When the outbreak occurred in Lombardy, we knew of centres and universities that were starting to consider the production of ventilators with 3D technology, and the first designs circulated. At CIM UPC, we have been collaborating for years with hospitals and health centres to develop healthcare equipment. In fact, we are coordinating a RIS3 CAT research project to use 3D printing in operating theatres. So when the crisis broke out here, we were already prepared and ready to coordinate with other groups that are working in this field.
What types of products are being created?
We are developing items to prevent contagion, such as door handles that can be opened with your forearm, masks and ventilation equipment, for which we are providing support in collaboration with others. Specifically, we are working on digitally manufactured motors and producing equipment validated by hospitals. We are organised in a network with Parc Taulí, Hospital Clínic and Hospital del Mar; the company BCN3D Technologies, which is a spin-off of CIM UPC; and with makers who are collaborating individually. In addition, we are actively collaborating with the 3DCovid19.tech platform, which brings together companies, hospitals and other research and development organisations that have joined forces to tackle the lack of healthcare equipment.
What role does CIM UPC play in this network?
In relation to ventilators, we are working on four levels: design assistance, programming, manufacture and regulations. In some of the designs we are responsible for connectors, for example, to connect tubes so that one ventilator can be used by several patients at the same time.
How many people at CIM UPC are involved in this initiative? And what equipment do you have?
Usually, fifty people work at the centre, and ten of us are working on this initiative. We have industrial equipment at our premises, including three large machines. We also use others’ equipment, such as the farm of 63 printers of BCN3D Technologies, our spin-off.
What is the centre’s industrial equipment like?
We have one large machine that enables us to work for industry. At the moment we are producing ventilator components with a machine that uses Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) technology, with a cubic capacity of 55x55x50 centimetres. We use high quality materials and an industrial process with ISO 9001: 2015 certification, to obtain parts that are much more reliable than those obtained using desktop printers. Specifically, we are manufacturing ventilator parts that are needed in hospitals.
Are you also producing the masks and door handles?
What we are doing here is creating the designs and releasing them, so that those who have printers can produce them. We are connected to the Barcelona network of manufacturers and to communities of makers, who are making their capacity available for these kinds of products.
What is the main challenge that you are finding?
The organisation is complicated. We need to adapt an ordered way of working with highly defined stages to a model in which professionals and volunteers collaborate. The key is to ensure that the management of the process does not diminish the effectiveness or utility of what we do. That’s why we have been involved in the platform 3DCovid19.tech since it was created, where we have organised capacities and demands.
What is the greatest strength of 3D printing in a situation like this?
The direct step from the screen to reality. Here we skip the stage of designing the tools that are required for production. Three-dimensional printing is highly flexible. You look for a solution, you test it, and if you haven’t got it right, it doesn’t matter because you can correct it as you go along. And the network that we have created of contacts and capacities, which is flexible and works with open innovation. In addition, we are already accustomed to using this technology to manufacture end products, not just prototypes, so we have the know-how required to define the necessary materials and processes.
Let’s go back to the organisation of all this. How is it done?
Instead of hierarchical organisations, think of completely flat organisations structured around projects and worked on in coordination and independently: masks for one hospital, visors for another, the ventilators… Some people take more of a leading role because of their experience and contacts, and the network functions in a flexible, results-focused way. This is totally unlike the traditional, twentieth-century models of companies.
But to use the CIM UPC machines you have to go to the centre…
Yes, and in a lockdown situation. But the rector’s office has provided access. We have coordinated with the university maintenance team to guarantee something as vital as the electricity supply, as the work that we are doing could be ruined if the power goes off. And we have had some emotional experiences, for example when we were applauded by the cleaning staff while we were printing ventilator parts.
CIM UPC usually works on demand, with very solid, planned models. Is this the most complicated project that CIM has worked on?
That’s definitely true for the centre. We have training on advanced production that we are trying to convert to the online system, but it is not easy. And from the technological perspective, in our daily work we face considerable challenges. When all this has passed, our research, development and innovation team will restart a project in the area of bioengineering to manufacture a special 3D printer that has some considerable requirements of great difficulty, but I cannot reveal any details because of confidentiality.
In relation to the coronavirus crisis, are you working with budgets?
At the moment we are recording the costs, but without limiting them: that is what the situation requires. Right now our revenue has been interrupted, which is why we are trying to promote sponsorship.
Could the response of CIM UPC and other entities, making 3D printing available to help in the health crisis, represent the coming of age of this technology?
I believe so. In terms of the social reach of the technology, the coronavirus crisis represents the coming of age for 3D printing. For us as a UPC centre, this is very important because part of our mission is to generate interest in this type of training, and I think this is happening with 3D printing. It will have a direct impact on interest in science careers, and this is also crucial for companies.
From the perspective of additive manufacturing, what lessons can be learnt from what is happening?
There are several things. The first is that this should make us humbler. And the collaboration between technology centres; it would be good if this could be maintained in the future.
In addition, we should accelerate the adoption of these kinds of technologies as a valid and necessary option for the standardisation of certain health products. Today, this is the great hurdle for companies, research and development centres and hospitals to overcome to be able to provide the solutions we are proposing without any risk to any of the parties, and above all without any risk to the patient.
What can traditional industry learn from this experience?
This situation reinforces something that has been noticeable for several years: the type of company that comes to CIM UPC for help to innovate and transform their way of designing and manufacturing is changing. An increasing number of spin-offs and small companies are coming with new designs, small-scale but highly specialised production, very dynamic companies that are capable of collaborating with others. These are fluid industries and I think that growth will accelerate.