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How Additive Manufacturing Ended America’s Mask Shortage

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many East Asian countries immediately put into place mask mandates and the use of professional protective equipment (PPE) for civilians. Mask mandates were not challenged because of the culture of wearing face masks in these countries. According to Ria Sinha, a senior research fellow at the University of Hong Kong, “because of the custom of wearing masks here, it wasn’t necessary for the government to mandate mask wearing for a long time because the public had already widely adopted their use.” This adoption explains why a large portion of PPE manufacturers reside in Asia. These countries use PPE more than their western counterparts. Thus, when the pandemic was at its height, these countries did not face the same PPE shortage that the United States underwent. 

The United States took a drastically different approach when it came to PPE, specifically face masks. The approach was defined in part by a stigma surrounding face masks and a failure in government messaging, but also largely by a shortage of supplies. As mentioned before, the supply chain for PPE started in manufacturing plants in Asia, and the finished products were outsourced to the United States. So when the global supply chain shut down, the United States was at an immediate disadvantage. Many PPE companies in the U.S. had outsourced their manufacturing to China and India for lower manufacturing costs. Even though one of the biggest domestic N95 manufacturers kept its largest manufacturing lines in the U.S., they weren’t able to keep up with demand. 

These factors created a recipe for disaster. To accommodate for the shortage of face masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  and the U.S. Surgeon General contradicted statements made by the World Health Organization (WHO) and scientists globally. On January 30, 2020, the CDC did not recommend face masks for the general public, because of shortages. Instead, they recommended that face masks be put aside for healthcare workers. They reiterated this advisory in late February and the U.S. Surgeon General backed up that claim. The position on face masks was reversed in April 2020, but by then the disease had spread widely. 

Manufacturing is a complicated process, but the United States has a system to expedite manufacturing during an emergency, such as the mask shortage at the beginning of the pandemic. The Defense Protection Act is “ the primary source of presidential authorities to expedite and expand the supply of materials and services from the U.S. industrial base needed to promote national defense.” This was put into place in early April by former President Trump. Critics have said that it was not used as effectively as it could have been. For example, Merrow Manufacturing LLC is a company that can produce 75,000 medical gowns per week but was never given the contract and thus the money to do so. As Charlie Merrow, CEO of Merrow Manufacturing, states, “Scaling up takes time. You have to build up resources, the real problem is a lack of long-term contracts. You have to build up the engine, build up the resources. You can’t treat manufacturing like a grocery store. It requires a commitment to continuous production.” This is the case for traditional manufacturing. The problem during the pandemic was not only the lack of manufacturing of PPE in the U.S., but lack of contracts spread to other manufacturers within the country and lack of resources. 

With this gap in the supply chain, the U.S. was able to turn to Additive Manufacturing (AM). Additive Manufacturing is the industrial name for the process of 3D printing and depositing material in layers to create a larger product. At a time where traditional manufacturing was lagging because of a lack of resources, AM could use different materials and changing designs to create face masks, respirator parts, door openers, swabs, or face shields. This effectively fixed gaps in the fractured supply chain. As stated by Stratasys Americas President Rich Garrity, “…the global 3D printing industry came together collectively to produce what I am sure was over a million face shields was a great milestone for the power of distributed manufacturing enabled by 3D printing.”

Additive manufacturing was not only used in the U.S. In Singapore, Dr. Ho Chaw Sing, managing director of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster, was able to manufacture 30,000 Python nasal swabs a day using a Formlabs printer. With the printer, the innovation cluster was able to quickly print “cost-effective 3D printed NP swab to combat imminent supply chain shortages.” As Miles Podmore, CEO of Eye-2-Eye communications states “it has not only been an excellent opportunity to showcase the advantages of 3D printing for rapid design and development but it has also shown Formlabs effectiveness in being able to mass-produce products in very short timeframes. Also, as we see spikes in cases across the globe it is reassuring to know we can scale our production relatively easily to meet demand if required.”

Overall, during the pandemic, Additive Manufacturing was able to quickly fill the gaps that typically take traditional manufacturing far longer and more resources to fill. AM at its core is also a more sustainable form of manufacturing.  One of the biggest benefits of AM is that it reduces production steps and has higher resource efficiency. It will be interesting to see if this rise in AM continues after the end of the pandemic. 



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