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3D Printing Helps Solve the Swab Shortage - Kate Stockrahm

CAT SMITH, HOST: Innovation rarely happens overnight. The wheel was invented around 3500 BC, but the wheelbarrow? That took another 3,700 years. It takes time to understand a problem and find a fix.

KAREN MANIRAHO, HOST: But last year, when the pandemic caused an international medical swab shortage, innovation had to speed up a bit. Kate Stockrahm reports.

KATE STOCKRAHM, BYLINE: Last spring, as COVID-19 began to shut down New York, nasopharyngeal swabs -- those Q tip like sticks that feel as if they touch your brain during a COVID test -- became suddenly vital... and scarce. Robert Haleluk is founder of Print Parts, a 3D printing company in Manhattan. He remembers watching coronavirus cases mount.

ROBERT HALELUK: The numbers were getting so staggeringly high, you know? You didn't have time to spin up a normal manufacturing process.

STOCKRAHM: Normal manufacturing might involve updating a factory, buying specialized equipment, sourcing new materials, or hiring and training workers. Aside from money, the process can require a lot of time.

CODY BURKE: If you're a big company, you're sitting there saying, why am I going to invest all this money into this product that there might not be a need for in six months?

STOCKRAHM: That’s Cody Burke, COO of Print Parts. He says building out a production line for NP swabs could’ve cost traditional manufacturing companies hundreds of thousands of dollars. It also might’ve been risky.

BURKE: By the time I'm up and running, this crisis might have passed, other people might have done the same thing, or things might be coming in from China again.

STOCKRAHM: Or Maine, or Italy, where other traditional swab manufacturers are based. Enter 3D printing. With this method, Print Parts could make thousands of swabs in a matter of hours -- no new factories, workers, or training required. Instead, the company would simply load a swab design onto one of their SLA printers.

BURKE: In the industry, we sometimes just call them “goo” printers, because it's like, it's this sort of nasty, very sticky material.

STOCKRAHM: In the case of NP swabs, that “goo” is medical grade resin. The resin sits in a container at the bottom of the printer. The printer dips in and, using UV light, it hardens one micro thin layer of resin at a time.

BURKE: And then repeat that process over and over again.

STOCKRAHM: That repetitive layering is why 3D printing is also called additive manufacturing. The ease of this process allowed a team of doctors to source 160 designs and develop a new NP swab on an unprecedented timeline. Dr. Ramy Arnaout is with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He led the team.

RAMY ARNAOUT: We were able to go from identification of the problem to the first of four clinically validated 3D-printed NP swabs in 22 days.

STOCKRAHM: If that feels fast, that’s because it is. And it meant companies like Print Parts could begin manufacturing the same day designs were validated. However, the process wasn’t without challenges. Haleluk had to build a special contraption to cure, or dry, thousands of swabs a day. It looks like a gas station fridge, but filled with UV light tubes and racks of swabs.

HALELUK: We started to call it the disco oven, because it basically looks like you're in a big ultraviolet party at a club.

STOCKRAHM: By the end of last year, Print Parts supplied over one million swabs for New York City’s COVID tests. Dr. Arnaout says the collaboration and speed of the NP swab solution is exceptional, but he is unsure it will happen again without another crisis.

Kate Stockrahm, Columbia Radio News.

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