Part 1: How are AM companies responding to the COVID-19 outbreak?

Published on March 30, 2020 by Carlota V.

The COVID-19 crisis has introduced a lot of uncertainty for many industries around the world. Whilst the crisis is resolving in China, where it started, in other parts of the world this is far from being the case. Governments have launched measures to curb the spread of the virus that often require employees to stay put at home. Gradually, we are starting to feel the collateral impacts of such necessary measures – reduced production and consumption are affecting many sectors and will impact the economy greatly.

Nevertheless, one of the sectors that is anything but slowing down is the medical and healthcare sector. Hospitals and medical staff are under great pressure to treat the alarming number of COVID-19 patients that require medical assistance. An important issue is that global stocks of medical equipment such as masks, face shields or ventilators are not enough to meet the demand, leaving many staff and patients unprotected. It’s in this context that 3D printing companies around the world are helping, whilst at the same time having to remain on top of their own operations and keeping their teams safe.

The current pandemic is affecting almost everyone, and will have long-lasting impacts on the economy and supply chains for the future. How is the additive manufacturing industry holding up? To learn more, we talked to AM companies that wished to share with us how COVID-19 is affecting their activities, but also what they believe this means for the 3D printing industry as a whole.

China: AM companies are slowly getting back up

The first registered case of COVID-19 in China was traced back to November, 17. Since, there have been 81,340 registered cases, resulting in 3,292 deaths. The measures taken by the Chinese government were pretty radical – a quarantine was announced on January, 23 stopping travel in and out of Wuhan, which was extended to a total of 15 cities in Hubei, affecting a total of about 57 million people. The first reports on the impact of these measures have been released, estimating that retail sales during the first months of 2020 plunged by 20.5%. Restrictions have slowly been lifted, and companies are getting back up.

When speaking with Farsoon Technologies, manufacturer and supplier of SLS and DMLS 3D printers, based in China – with headquarters in Changsha, the company revealed that the situation is changing. Chenlu Fang, Global Marketing Manager, told us: “Since the virus crisis in China is close to an end, currently all 300 staff are back at work in our Headquarters. The impact is diminishing, we are just experiencing some minor delays from suppliers. However the global situation is different, Farsoon Europe (located in Stuttgart, Germany) and Farsoon Americas (located in Austin, Texas) are currently being impacted, especially logistics and travels.” The company explains that it has local warehouses in Germany and the US capable of facing such a situation. Chenlu Fang added: “Both offices still maintain full functionality for sales, marketing and remote technical support. We are well prepared for the upcoming changes.”

In the current context, the company also understood pretty early on that 3D printing could become an emergency solution for the lack of medical equipment hospitals are facing. “As a member of the 3D printing community, we believe that additive manufacturing can have a good impact while traditional supply chains are overburdened. During the outbreak in China, we worked closely with our industrial partners to provide as much aid as possible. We just made the design files available for all to download so that these tools can be produced from your home or local facilities.” The files include a facial mask adjuster and safety goggles. During the peak of the crisis, Farsoon Technologies 3D printed thousands of goggles.

Still in China, INTAMSYS – manufacturer of 3D printers for high-performance materials – also confirms that the situation is slowly resolving. Maxime Pages, Manager at INTAMSYS told us: “Here in China, where we are based, our production is almost back to normal. During the past two months there was a lot of uncertainty and strong measures had to be taken. Our employees were working from home, travels were limited… Today we have strict protocols such as disinfection of the working environment, temperature checks twice a day, mandatory to wear masks, use of hand sanitizer, etc.” Nevertheless, he adds: “Business-wise, there is still a lot of uncertainty, with the global supply chain being affected. We are continuously monitoring the situation.”

What this crisis has demonstrated in China, but also all over the world is how important 3D printing technologies are to respond to supply chain problems. Maxime Pages adds: “Many very promising initiatives are being set up, such as the production of 3D printed masks, medical devices and medical shields to help fight the virus. On our side, since the production here in China is back to normal, we have decided to send masks and hand sanitizers to our partners. Since many countries are now lacking those, we think this is the best we can do at the moment.

Ensuring safety and providing help to the medical community

While the crisis is having a negative impact on the global economy and the 3D printing industry, one positive is the huge support AM companies have provided. Materialise, Ultimaker, 3D Hubs, Stratasys, HP, 3D Systems, Makerbot, BCN3D, Xometry, Formlabs and many more are mobilizing to assist the needs of the medical sector. We spoke to Formlabs, based in the US to understand how the company is adjusting to the current situation.

César Santos, EMEA Manager at Formlabs told us: “First and foremost, we are ensuring the safety and well-being of our employees. We have instituted work from home policies wherever possible, are limiting employee travel, and are taking many precautions to limit the spread of the virus. Secondly, as a business we are employing various measures to ensure our company continues to meet the needs of our customers and the market. Thankfully Formlabs’ production and manufacturing operations have so far only had minimal impacts, and those areas of our supply chain that have been impacted are rebounding quickly as more factories reopen throughout the affected areas. Formlabs keeps a surplus of inventory in our warehouses to create a safety net for situations such as this where supply chains are challenged or interrupted, and have strong supply chain partners. And finally, Formlabs is looking for ways to help the medical community to address the overall COVID-19 epidemic.”

Will the current COVID-19 crisis change the 3D printing industry? César Santos expects it will change more than just the AM sector, “I think this is going to change a lot of different industries. There’s already a significant amount of people and organizations using their 3D printing resources and skills to help. We think that the way 3D printing can contribute to reduce the impact of this crisis is significant, and will contribute to increase the awareness about the 3D printing industry in general.” The community response to the Formlabs Support Network for COVID-19 has been tremendous. Within the first 48 hours, Formlabs received nearly 500 responses from individuals and organizations offering their assistance. Formlabs is actively working with a couple dozen medical and healthcare organizations to support their COVID-19 specific projects.

Of course, smaller companies are often more impacted than bigger ones. The startup Additive America is focused on advancing the prosthetics industry deep into the digital manufacturing age by using 3D printing technologies. More precisely, it uses HP’s Multi Jet Fusion process. Zac Holcomb, one of the founders of Additive America told us: “We are limiting our exposure to others, but we remain fully operational with our in-house printing capabilities. Navigating this as a startup company will remain a challenge, but we are feeling positive after such a strong start for us to the year, we feel that things will come back around in a month or so. We are currently available 24/7, as we always have been for our customers. We offer up our cell numbers and we welcome calls or texts around the clock! We have stocked up on supplies and we plan to come out of this in great shape on the other side. We have given all employees the opportunity to work from home as much as they desire. Our core staff required for operations is small and a tight-knit team and they have been handling all of those tasks. Overall, it’s business as usual for us, we are using this slow period to double down on our belief that social media content will continue to be king.”

What do you think of the way AM companies are responding to the COVID-19 crisis?Let us know in a comment below or on our Facebook and Twitter pages! Don’t forget to sign up for our free weekly Newsletter, with all the latest news in 3D printing delivered straight to your inbox!

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