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3D-printed ventilator valves help out Italian hospital rocked by coronavirus

What do you do when a crucial part of a lifesaving piece of medical equipment is in hopelessly short supply? You 3D print yourself a supply of them, of course. At least, that’s what happened at a hospital in Brescia, Italy, rocked by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

While ventilator breathing machines are not exactly in abundant supply, medical professionals found that the valves connecting the machine to the patient were even scarcer. This is due to the fact that they have to be regularly swapped out between patients, giving the component a very short life span.

“They had the breathing machines and the masks, but they didn’t have the connector between them,” Alessandro Romaioli, technical engineer of Isinnova, told Digital Trends. “That meant the patients could not breath properly. [The hospital] wanted us to print as many valves as possible in a really, really short space of time.”

Isinnova, a local 3D printing company, was called in on Friday morning to see if they could help. They took a sample of the valve, measured it up, re-created it in a CAD program, and quickly returned with a 3D-printed version. It worked. By Sunday, they had produced a total of 95 pieces. “We are used to projects like this, but this is the first time we have had to do it [so quickly],” CEO and engineer Christian Fracassi told Digital Trends.

Christian Fracassi

The hospital is now using the pieces. “Usually they have valves, which they buy from the [manufacturer],” Romaioli explained. “But in this emergency case, a lot of hospitals had asked for them. So the producer was not able to provide enough.”

The pair said they would not be making the components available open-source to whoever wants them, however. This isn’t just about distributing a proprietary design, either; they’re worried it could hurt patients.

“There are different kinds of breathing machines, so there are also different kinds of valves,” Romaioli said. “This is why we’re not giving the file out to anyone, because if you don’t use the right valve on the right machine it won’t work well.”

To Fracassi, the story is one that highlights the usefulness of 3D printing, especially at a time when traditional manufacturing plants are struggling due to the coronavirus outbreak. “A lot of manufacturers are currently in a lot of trouble, because people working for them are having to stay home,” he said. “The supply chain is falling down. I think 3D printing in these cases can help. Traditional manufacturing processes can produce many more pieces than by 3D printing. But 3D printing can produce pieces in a very short time, and without a lot of components and people having to be involved.”

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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