3D printing beyond the face mask
Mita Srinivasan
10X Technology

3D printing beyond the face mask

Companies specialising in 3D printing in the Middle East have famously pivoted to producing medical equipment for coronavirus warriors. However, some are also launching hygiene products for everyday use, learning business lessons along the way. Guest contributor, Keith J Fernandes, talked to several startups to see how they have coped with the changes in the market.

It has taken Qais Sabri and his colleagues at Jordanian startup Eon Dental only a few years to show how Middle Eastern entrepreneurs can level the playing field and compete internationally. The additive manufacturer sells its 3D-printed dental aligners to customers in the US, Germany, Singapore, and the Middle East. It is now bringing that expertise to the fight against COVID-19 with 3D-printed medical equipment.

“3D printing has really disrupted various markets that require a lot of industrial infrastructure and capital costs. It allows for dynamic and hyperlocal manufacturing across many applications, and that principle allowed us to pivot our 3D printing farms to manufacture spare parts for ventilators as well as testing swabs,” Sabri says.

“Our intention was to shore up the transient deficit in manufacturing supplies until larger suppliers catch up, but we’ve also realised there is a real need to control the supply chain locally. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of having manufacturing capabilities at the regional level.”

With global supply chains disrupted by extensive lockdowns and reduced travel capabilities, 3D makers everywhere have stepped into the breach to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical workers as well as ventilator parts and face masks for consumer use.

Eon Dental has reconfigured its machines to be able to produce 3,800 ventilator spare parts per day in collaboration with the Royal Medical Services in Jordan. It has also designed and printed COVID-19 test swabs that have been accredited by Singapore’s Ministry of Health and are being trialed across the healthcare community.

Similarly, entrepreneur Ruba Al Nashash’s 3Dinova started out making gifts. Now the company not only 3D prints face masks but also produces elbow-operated door handles to limit the possibility of contact infections.

Immensa Technology Labs, a Sharjah-based spare parts supplier to the oil and gas industry, has started offering clear plastic visors made from a special polymer that repels viruses and bacteria while providing 180-degree face protection.

“We were able to produce the shields at competitive prices, with 100% of production in the UAE. Therefore, we as a country, do not need to rely on imports for such basic preventive tools,” says Fahmi Al-Shawwa, CEO and founder at Immensa Technology Labs.

Precise Group, a regional general trading company that distributes 3D printers, similarly shifted gear to make PPE. Hundreds of thousands of units were supplied to frontline staff in UAE government organisations, hospitals and pharmacies, says Lothar Hohmann, president of Precise Group.

“In our production facilities, we have more than 100 3D printers to our disposal and are working 24/7 to ensure quick turnaround times as customers are always in a hurry,” he adds.

Filling a new market gap

While most additive products printed during the coronavirus crisis cater to medical needs, Precise’s latest line capitalises on a new market gap, showing a possible way forward for the sector. As the economy opens up and more people start going out again, hygiene will be more important than ever. Precise’s answer is a range of sanitising covers fashioned from Plactive – an antimicrobial nanocomposite made of polylactic acid (PLA) and a copper additive. The material eliminates 99.9% of fungi, viruses and a wide range of microorganisms, say developers Copper 3D.

“We have seen an increased demand for this product as the material self-disinfects, keeping it safe and clean when touched. Companies are looking to add protection on frequently touched surfaces such as switches, elevator buttons and door handles,” Hohmann explains.

The product has drawn interest from hospitals, restaurants and banks. Precise is now creating face masks injection-moulded with Plactive, with the first units expected by the end of the month.

Overall, the coronavirus crisis has accelerated the growth of the 3D printing industry. Not only has customer exposure to products manufactured through additive printing skyrocketed, but the industry itself now recognises how quick paradigm shifts can positively influence business operations.

Sabri says the experience of resetting its printers has prompted Eon to invest in equipment with greater flexibility.

“When the next opportunity arises – whether from a virus or anything else – would we be able to respond as quickly? So, the message is that the world is changing, and technology is opening doors to new opportunities. But as an entrepreneur, how can you come up with a value proposition that enables you to solve a problem quickly and dynamically?”