Engineers explore manufacturing solutions to critical COVID-19 supply needs

Posted: May 28, 2020

CDME is part of a coalition of university experts coming together to combat the shortage of critical supplies needed to fight COVID-19.
CDME is part of a coalition of university experts coming together to combat the shortage of critical supplies needed to fight COVID-19.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, an urgent need to procure and produce critical medical equipment remains. The Ohio State University’s Office of Research, College of Engineering, and College of Medicine has responded by funding a pair of interdisciplinary research projects focused on combating supply shortages.

One project allows centers and institutes across Ohio State to maintain production of swabs used to test for the novel coronavirus. The other explores an innovative approach for quickly producing ventilator parts needed if hospital systems experience a surge of COVID-19 patients.

“University investigators across campus — including engineering, medicine, veterinary medicine, and nursing — are translating their expertise into real-world solutions to combat the current public health crisis,” said Nate Ames, the executive director of Ohio State’s Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence (CDME). “This funding enables us to pursue this mission, giving our health care workers the tools they need to save more lives.”

Ramping up swab production

Responding to a shortage of swabs needed for COVID-19 test kits, a coalition of university scientists, engineers, supply chain specialists, and manufacturers first teamed up in March. At the time, their goal was to rapidly develop a supply chain capable of 3D printing, testing, and distributing hundreds of thousands of the urgently needed nasopharyngeal swabs. Since mid-April, the cohort has delivered over 200,000 swabs to transition for use in medical centers throughout Ohio.

Engineers are exploring swab design options, including the rendering above, for injection molding practices.
Engineers are exploring swab design options, including the rendering above, for injection molding practices.

Still, concerns of shortages loom in the face of potential increases in demand.

Led by Ohio State’s Institute for Materials Research (IMR), experts from CDME, the Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI), and The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center are investigating a more timely and cost-effective alternative to 3D printing. Injection molding is a manufacturing process in which molten materials, such as plastic, are injected into a cavity, where the product’s shape stabilizes as it cools and hardens. Nearly all mass-produced plastic products are made by injection molding.

“This support from across the university allows our team to help improve the health of Ohioans by providing frontline health workers an abundant, reliable supply of nasopharyngeal swabs for the foreseeable future,” said Jay Sayre, the director of innovation and research at IMR and an associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

The research team expects this manufacturing process will eliminate constraints that come with 3D printing techniques by developing a new, rapid product development and clinical testing cycle.

A novel approach for producing critical ventilator parts

Around the country, hospital systems are preparing to support surges of COVID-19 patients. Ensuring access to an adequate supply of ventilators, used when treating severe cases of COVID-19, is a vital part of this preparation.

Researchers at Ohio State aim to produce sterilizable ventilator splitters to safely allow multiple patients to be connected to a single ventilator if the need arises. The team is led by Edward Herderick, the director of additive manufacturing at CDME, and David Dean, the director of the Osteo Engineering Lab at Ohio State and an associate professor in the Department of Materials and Engineering.

MedCAD’s existing design for a ventilator splitter
MedCAD’s existing design for a ventilator splitter.
Ventilators are used in intensive care situations. The machines help patients breathe effectively when they can't on their own. Amanda Zeid, an assistant director of respiratory therapy at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, offered valuable insight into what ventilators can do for COVID-19 patients in this article.

The research team plans to convert preliminary 3D-printed ventilator splitters into a design suited for injection molding.

“Traditional injection molding with metal, known as hard tooling, is better equipped for high volume components,” Herderick said. “But there’s also a high upfront cost and longer required lead times to make the tooling.”

They will take a soft-tooling approach to fabricate molds at a lower cost and faster rate than traditional machined metal molds. Soft tooling uses polymer printing to make injection molds.

“The process could allow a surging demand for splitters to be met using injection molding processes and machinery, but without the investment to make hard tooling,” he added.

The effort unites university and industry-based collaborators from CDME, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, and MedCAD.

MedCAD provides medical products and services customized to a specific patient through a global distribution network headquartered in Dallas, Texas. Their track record for innovative medical device design using 3D printing in a clinical setting makes them an ideal partner for Ohio State, said Herderick.

“MedCAD is particularly excited to work with CDME on expanding the capabilities of ventilators by leveraging 3D printed tooling for rapid, high production of devices that multiplex ventilators,” said MedCAD President and CEO Nancy Hairston.

“These valve devices will allow a single ventilator to safely treat multiple patients at the same time, which is a critically needed, life-saving option in rural and remote hospitals as well as overly taxed facilities.”

The projects received a combined $82,000.