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3D printing may help supply more essential coronavirus medical gear

But that doesn't mean you can print yourself a mask at home. HP and others will work on 3D parts like ventilator valves and breathing filters.

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HP has offered to use its 3D printers to make necessary medical supplies to combat the coronavirus. 

Aloysius Low/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

The medical supply shortage caused by the novel coronavirus could get some help from an unexpected source: 3D printers

Printer maker HP, teeth straightener vendor SmileDirectClub and various other companies are exploring ways to use their 3D-printing technology to build things like ventilator valves, breathing filters and face mask clasps. HP, in a press release from Wednesday, said it's also looking at "entirely new parts such as plastic door handle adaptors which enable easy elbow opening to prevent further spread of the virus."

"We will make available any HP proprietary design files for these parts so they can be produced anywhere in the world and are also helping end-customers bridge potential supply chain interruptions by expanding distributed print-on-demand capabilities," the Silicon Valley tech giant said. 

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SmileDirectClub, which makes 3D-printed, customized orthodontia, said on Thursday that it's one of the largest 3D-printing manufacturers in the US. It's opened its manufacturing facility and is donating plastic to help medical supply companies and health organizations increase production of needed coronavirus medical supplies like medical face shields and respirator valves.

And Materialise, a Belgian 3D printing company, has developed hands-free door openers to help emergency workers and others avoid spreading germs. The 3D printed part can be fitted to an existing door handle without drilling holes or replacing the existing handle. Its first model can be attached to cylindrical handles. 

At the same time, people on social media have been sharing 3D-printing plans for customizable face masks and forming groups to build ventilators using 3D printers and other easily available materials.

That doesn't mean you can just 3D-print your own equipment, though. Some of the items require specialized equipment, and it's not clear how well something like a 3D-printed mask would work.  

The coronavirus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. It causes an illness known as COVID-19 and has been linked to a family of viruses known as coronaviruses, which include SARS and MERS. The World Health Organization has labeled COVID-19 a pandemic. The crisis is changing the way we live and forcing people across the globe to stay at home and isolate themselves from others. 

The pandemic has caused schools to close, while other closures have swept across the country, from Broadway theaters to NBA venues. Starting Tuesday, the San Francisco Bay Area was put on lockdown, with citizens ordered to stay at home except for essential outings. It joined places like France and Spain in limiting the movement of the public. 

Supply shortages

The lockdowns and worries about the coronavirus have caused people to rush their grocery stores, pharmacies and corner bodegas in an effort to have enough supplies to last for weeks confined at home. Their shopping sprees have included toilet paper, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and masks, which have all seen shortages. 

The medical community and first responders across the country are struggling to acquire enough masks, ventilators and other essential gear to treat people infected with COVID-19. The Society of Critical Care Medicine believes nearly 1 million coronavirus patients in the US could need ventilators at some point during the outbreak, according to the AP, but the country has only about 200,000 of the machines. 

3D printing could help in some key areas, like those ventilator valves being explored by HP. Automakers like Tesla have also volunteered to help build ventilators

Also called additive manufacturing, 3D printing got an early foothold as a way to design prototypes. Since then, it's also crept into production lines for finished products. The unusual shapes of 3D-printed elements let companies build plastic components that are lighter than metal alternatives but couldn't be made with conventional injection molding methods, for example.

But 3D printing can't completely solve the shortages. Some items, like face masks, require complicated materials. The 3D machines themselves are still slow, requiring hours to print some designs. Small items can be printed in a matter of minutes, so making simple valves likely would be quicker. But the 3D-printing process probably won't allow for them to be mass produced at the same scale as in a factory designed for bulk production of those items. 

That's not stopping companies from trying.

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Materialise has created hands-free door openers that can be 3D printed.

Materialise

Open Source Ventilator, a group started on Facebook on March 11, aims to build a ventilator "using readily available materials, 3D printing and open-source hardware resources," according to Forbes. In a week, the group -- whose members include more than 300 engineers, doctors and others -- has created a prototype that could be approved for use in Ireland as early as next week, the publication said. 

Copper3D, a Chilean company, has been working on printed face masks that use copper to filter harmful bugs and toxins from the air. Co-founder Daniel Martínez told 3D Printing Media Network that one mask takes about two hours to print, so it decided to open source its design to work with other startups, makers, universities and others to quickly build supplies. Copper3D didn't immediately respond to a request for more information about its "NanoHack" mask efforts.

And Materialise, which says it operates one of the world's largest 3D printing facilities, shared design specs for door handles for free online. The company noted the door handles are some of the some germ-infested objects in homes, hospitals and other places. Its design lets people use their covered arms instead of hands to open a door. 

On Friday, its design file was downloaded more than 12,000 times from its website. Materialise also added seven more designs to its first model, for different door handles and smaller ones that use less materials. A company spokesman said a wide variety of companies are ordering handles directly from Materialise, including hospitals, industrial plants and retirement homes. 

"There are lots of different people and companies using the 3D printed door handle," a company spokesman told CNET. "Some of the most notable ones are Mayo ClinicSyntratecHP & Hôpital Necker." He added the last on the list " added the nice touch to print them in the French national colors."

CNET's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.