In some ways the pandemic created the perfect environment for 3D printing to thrive in.
When Penn State School of International Affairs academic John Gershenson co-founded Kenyan 3D printing firm Kijenzi in 2017, his aim was to democratise the manufacturing process. Having seen that many communities, particularly in remote parts of the world, are cut off from global supply chains, Gershenson wanted to start an organisation that could, he says, make “what is needed, when it’s needed, where it’s needed”. Medical devices were an area of “clear need” and Kijenzi, which is based in Western Kenyan city Kisumu, started life 3D printing replacement knobs for broken malaria-detecting microscopes. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the company’s market was transformed literally overnight.
“It was clear there was going to be a need for PPE [personal protective equipment] and that, if it came into Kenya, Nairobi would get everything,” Gershenson says. “We had great access to cutting-edge designs – we had access to every product that was getting approved by the World Health Organization – so when the pandemic hit, in less than two weeks, we had completely changed our catalogue and were completely up to speed.”
The situation was replicated around the world, with 3D printed PPE filling the void created when lockdowns threw supply chains into disarray at the same time as global demand far outstripped supply. In Wuhan, where Covid-19 was first identified, 200 3D printers meant up to 2,000 pairs of safety goggles could be produced in the vicinity of the Chinese city’s hospitals on a daily basis. In the UK, the National 3D Printing Society called on anyone with a printer to make and distribute PPE in their local area. Over two months from April 2020, more than 250,000 visors were produced.
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