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Four days ago, Joe DeSimone, cofounder of 3D printing unicorn Carbon, and Ellen Kullman, who became the company’s CEO last November, started thinking seriously about how the company’s technology might help meet the urgent needs for medical supplies during the coronavirus pandemic. With shortages on everything from ventilators to face masks making the news, they debated which gaps their 3D-printing technology might be able to fill, and settled on two areas: personal protective equipment and test swabs.
Over the weekend, the company designed face shields in conjunction with Verily (the Alphabet company behind the COVID-19 online screening website Project Baseline), 3D-printed prototypes of them, and sent them off to Stanford Hospital and Kaiser Permanente for testing. Simultaneously, Carbon’s designers started working on 3D-printed COVID-19 nasopharyngeal test swabs, which are also in short supply and among the reasons for the bottleneck in testing. DeSimone and Kullman are already sending the face shields out to hospitals, and by day’s end had received regulatory approval as a class 1 exempt device without having to file paperwork through the Food and Drug Administration’s new expedited approval process. They hope to be able to distribute the swabs soon, though they declined to specify an exact time frame.
“We are scrambling like crazy,” says
DeSimone, 55, a former professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who launched the company in 2013. While most of Redwood City, California-based Carbon’s employees are working remotely during the state’s shelter-in-place order, DeSimone carries a letter with him that permits his movement just in case he’s stopped by the police; a small staff has to be there to run the company’s industrial-scale 3D printers. “I think this is a really great moment for Carbon—the nation needs us,” he says.
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, and shortages of all types of medical equipment have become clear, giant companies and do-it-yourselfers alike have scrambled to fill the gaps. Ford this morning announced that it was teaming up with 3M and GE Healthcare, for example, to crank up production of ventilators and respirators. But the crisis also offers a moment for industrial 3D printing technology, which has for the past few years been on the verge of a breakthrough, to show the public what it might be capable of. A technology that can produce parts at scale in multiple locations at one time, and go from design to production in a day, is, in some sense, designed for a crisis like this.