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Crowdsourcing vs. coronavirus: Inside the global push to 3D-print masks and ventilator parts

March 28, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

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Earlier this month, as the coronavirus pandemic began exposing a dangerous lack of ventilators and protective equipment, Wia CEO Conall Laverty mused on Twitter about the availability of lifesaving equipment. “What’s the status of ventilator availability in Ireland?” Laverty tweeted. “Do we need to start building some?”

As a founder of a cloud platform that connects Internet of things hardware with services, Laverty is no stranger to working with a widespread community to build a variety of things. And when Laverty connected with two other tech founders, Colin Keogh and David Pollard, the trio formed Team OSV—short for open source ventilator⁠.

“Within a week, the community has grown from a few guys in Ireland to over 2,500 engineers, designers, and medical professionals in more than 55 countries,” Laverty tells Fortune.

With the coronavirus outbreak leaving hospitals short on ventilators and protective equipment, 3D printers have spun up globally to address the desperate need for lifesaving equipment. Now 3D-printing efforts are taking shape around the world, with everyone from large operations to hobbyist 3D printers volunteering to help.

“What we’re seeing right now is short-run production—traditional product cycles are long,” Greg Kress, CEO of 3D-printing company Shapeways, tells Fortune. “3D printing is a stopgap for the problems we are facing today.”

Breathing life into 3D-printed ventilators

Prior to Team OSV’s ramp-up, Keogh had already connected with three engineers in Canada who had been working on 3D-printed ventilator designs. Within a week, the engineers created several prototypes that are being tested in the community. Laverty says he hopes the ventilators will be trialed in hospitals as early as next week.

Team OSV’s global group congregates on a Slack channel, where they share what’s working and what isn’t. The project has grown beyond ventilators to the manufacture of face masks and contactless thermal cameras that can tell if someone has a fever, one of the symptoms of COVID-19.

But Laverty’s open-source effort is just one of many currently circulating online. For instance, more than 4,800 people with 3D printers have, via a public Google Doc, signed up to help print everything from face shields to ventilator parts for their local hospitals.

Cristian Fracassi, CEO of 3D printing startup Isinnova, heard about a shortage of valves that connect respirators to masks and decided to help.

“We got in touch with the hospital immediately. We printed some prototypes. The hospital tested them and told us they worked,” Fracassi told Reuters. “So we printed 100 valves, and I delivered them personally.”

Meanwhile, some hospitals are leading their own charge, inspiring 3D-printer owners to fire up their machines. For example, a group of anesthesiologists facing a shortage of ventilators at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital came up with their own online challenge.

The CoVent-19 Challenge is an open-innovation eight-week challenge for engineers, innovators, designers, and makers to produce rapidly deployable designs for two devices,” says the website. Details on those two devices have not yet been released.

The goal is for people around the world to create teams and finalize their device designs by June 2020, before they’re validated and produced at scale to address hospital shortages.

The hospital says it “will support our participants with expert medical and technical panels to guide their designs.”

3D printing is particularly helpful in these cases, says Kress, the Shapeways CEO.

“If you were thinking about a respirator, there are components that are very expensive that they don’t keep on shelves,” he says. “They typically only manufacture them when needed.”

3D-printing masks and facial shields

While ventilators and their components are crucial to saving lives, 3D printing is also being used to help prevent the spread of the virus, as hospitals in the U.S. and abroad face a shortage of protective shields, which are worn over masks.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Isaac Budmen and Stephanie Keefe made and sold 3D printers through Budmen Industries, a company based in Syracuse, N.Y. Now the couple are also using their printers to make much-needed shields for New York’s medical workers.

“We started last Monday [March 16]. We made 50 by Tuesday [March 17],” Budmen tells Fortune. “We got a phone call that said, ‘Hey, we heard you have 50,’ and they said, ‘Can you make 300 more?’”

“From there, we started revving up,” Budmen says. The couple have manufactured at least 1,492 shields to date.

One shield takes 58 minutes to print, according to Budmen. After that, assembling a foam strip, an elastic band, and the poly sheet takes an additional two minutes. “Off the shelf” materials from Michaels, Lowe’s, and Home Depot cost about $8 to $8.50, he adds.

While ventilators need to pass regulators, Budmen says doctors have been desperate to get their hands on protective equipment.

“We reached out to a lot of doctors asking if they need shields, and they said, ‘We needed them yesterday. If you can make it right now, get it to us.’”

Budmen’s website is also set up to help hospitals around the world connect with 3D-printing hobbyists who now have a design for a shield and want to help.

“We have people in the Netherlands, Sweden, Brazil, Chile, Japan, the Virgin Islands—you name it,” Budmen says.

Kress’s Shapeways has also joined the fight. The company is sourcing designs for medical equipment prototypes. Anything that isn’t working is taken off the company’s site. Kress says the company is collaborating with 15 major hospitals in Boston and New York on the initiative, but declined to name them.

“We designed the file, and each hospital is working with us on their own,” he says.

As vital and successful as these efforts may prove to be, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all future medical equipment will be 3D-printed, Kress says.

“These are temporary solutions to solve the short-term supply chain issues we’re facing right now,” he says.

But 3D printing is a viable solution for the coronavirus pandemic, when fast work is urgently needed to save lives.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

—Will ‘The Great Cessation’ be worse than the Great Recession?
—Everything you need to know about the coronavirus stimulus checks
—Why Mark Cuban is focusing his time—and money—on coronavirus relief
—The world’s largest coronavirus lockdown is off to a rocky start
—The coronavirus has shattered the drug development status quo. We should build on that
—The $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package isn’t green, but it helps
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
—WATCH: World leaders and health experts on how to stop the spread of COVID-19

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