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3D printing can save lives

3D printing can save lives

Articles

Technology at the service of healthcare
Quick, efficient and flexible manufacturing: that’s what these times of crisis call for and that’s exactly what 3D printing can do. As a leading provider of additive manufacturing materials, Solvay is multiplying initiatives and collaborations to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In the current context, Solvay’s purpose of “reinventing progress thanks to the power of science” resonates more than ever, reinforcing our shared belief that science is the key to find solutions that can ultimately save lives. Furthermore, crisis periods, when new priorities and challenges emerge, force radical changes: they push us to challenge ourselves, to challenge the status quo, to be imaginative, and so think and act differently.

That’s what we’ve been doing as a Group over the past few weeks. A number of our scientists have been busy finding ways to leverage the power of additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing) to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Through a collaboration to manufacture innovative protection masks in Belgium, an employee initiative in Lyon (France) to make face shields for hospitals and a recent investment in a German medical devices startup, Solvay is proud to be putting our expertise in materials and technologies to good use while bringing people together.

Additive manufacturing for medical staff
In this context, researchers from the Additive Manufacturing (AM) Team at our Research & Innovation Center in Brussels have been working on their own time on the development of 3D-printed parts for a half-mask designed to protect first line medical staff from virus transmission. This innovative mask will have equivalent properties to the standard FFP2 mask, but with the added advantage of being reusable and sterilizable. It aims to be a durable solution that answers current and future demand for the equipment of medical personnel.

Thanks to their expertise in 3D printing, prototyping and simulation, Solvay’s AM Team was able to design an aerator system that improves the mask’s ease of use and breathability during medical operations. It took five generations of design to get the aerators just right and obtain maximum breathability and perfect adjustment on the mask. The current 3D printed version is made of PA12, so it can be washed with water and soap and withstand temperatures up to 135°C.

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The next step is to create injection molds to ramp up production capacity and use Solvay’s polysulfone that is sterilizable more than a thousand times. At the same time, the team is also working on the development of the “skin” part of these FFP2-certified masks. “We hope to manufacture a small series of a few thousand units over the summer,” says Caroline Frederix, Senior Scientist at Solvay’s Brussels R&I Center. “What makes this project possible is that thermoplastics are all high performance materials with excellent chemical, thermal and mechanical resistance. For example, the polysulfones we used for certain parts of the mask are already commonly used in healthcare because they can withstand hospital-grade sterilization so well.”

Meanwhile, at our Research and Innovation Center in Lyon, Sébastien Zèbre and Stéphane Loustau, two engineering office technicians who created an in-house 3D printing service for Solvay’s researchers, volunteered to print parts for protection equipment for medical staff , but also for school teachers. “3D printing is the fastest way to create a prototype, sometimes in less than a day,” they say. “So choosing this method makes perfect sense considering the urgency of the situation. Also, our own humanity motivated us to act.”

Investing in the future of medical equipment
In addition to these emergency relief initiatives, Solvay is also announcing an investment, through our venture capital fund Solvay Ventures, in Kumovis, a startup developing a cutting-edge 3D printing ecosystem for medical applications.

Emerging from the Technical University of Munich, Kumovis wants to shape the future of the production of medical devices thanks to 3D printing technologies, by enabling its manufacturing right at the point of care. Such an investment echoes with Solvay’s ambition to become a leading provider of AM-ready advanced polymer solutions: materials that can be put directly into a 3D printer without any preliminary transformations. “This investment also furthers Solvay’s commitment to improving health and quality of life in general,” says Stéphane Roussel, Solvay Ventures Managing Director. “By accelerating the transition to personalized medicine, Kumovis and Solvay will expand together the application space for high-performance specialty polymers in healthcare and have the potential to do so in other industries as well.”

Through additive manufacturing and so many other solutions and technologies, from investing in cutting edge startups to rallying to help out hospital staff, we remain fully committed to pushing boundaries and reinventing progress.

One of the parts they volunteered to make was headbands for face shields. The team collaborated with A3D, a local digital workshop, to assemble the shields and headbands and ship them to hospitals in the Lyon area. We also donated spools of PLA polymer, a material that allows quick and easy 3D printing.

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