Spark

This 3D printing company is solving Kenya's PPE shortage by producing face shields

A Nairobi-based 3D printing company Ultra Red Technologies is one of many businesses stepping up to produce personal protective equipment as Kenya faces a PPE shortage. Industrial resilience expert Mukesh Kumar explains the role local industry plays in addressing global supply chain disruptions.
Ultra Red produces a modified open-source version of a face shield designed by a Swedish company 3DVerkstan. The 3D-printed shield is composed of two layers of PLA and PET plastic. (Ultra Red Technologies/Facebook)
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The disruption of global supply chains during the novel coronavirus pandemic has led to medical equipment shortages all over the world, and local manufacturers are stepping up to fill that gap. 

Ultra Red Technologies, a 3D printing company based in Nairobi, Kenya, is one of many examples of businesses pivoting to the production of medical equipment, which is in high demand and short supply in the region. The company is now producing plastic face shields for local healthcare professionals. 

"We're bridging the gap before a large-scale manufacturer comes onboard," Ultra Red co-founder Mehul Shah told Spark host Nora Young. 

"We're working with a plastics manufacturer in order to get a mould ready for this, so that face shields can be made at a much larger scale that will then be dispersed everywhere they're needed."

According to the World Health Organization, as of April 30, there are 396 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kenya. WHO is concerned about the possibility of a "huge peak" in cases in the coming weeks, according to the organization officials.  

Ultra Red produces a modified open-source version of a face shield designed by a Swedish additive manufacturing company 3DVerkstan. The shield is composed of two layers of PLA and PET plastic, and a PVC binder cover for the visor component. Shah said the face shield weighs just under 17 grams.

Shah expects Ultra Red to produce up to 500 of these face shields per day.

The face shield design has been approved for clinical use by the National Institutes of Health, a U.S.-based medical research agency, and Shah said the feedback from local healthcare practitioners in Kenya has been positive. 

"They enjoy the fact that it's very lightweight, so it doesn't obstruct their movement, and obviously it allows them to wear the correct PPEs under it, like an N95 mask and goggles, and then you can have this face shield as an extra layer of protection from splatter," he said. 

COVID-19 pandemic a challenge for global supply chains

Industrial resilience expert Mukesh Kumar said the pandemic has presented a unique challenge for the global supply chains. Normally, he said, as many as 15 countries can be involved in the process of manufacturing and distributing a single product.

Mukesh Kumar studies the areas of risk and resilience in international manufacturing and supply networks at the University of Cambridge. (Submitted)

"Different parts of the world [are] locked down, and people are not able to work, hence we can see various medical devices and medical products are in shortages across the world," explained Kumar, who studies the areas of risk and resilience in international manufacturing and supply networks at the University of Cambridge.

He said that the restricted movement of goods in the current situation has emphasized the importance of localized manufacturing as a way of addressing supply chain vulnerabilities in the long term, a concept known as resilience in economics.

Ultra Red's Mehul Shah said that the flexibility of 3D printing can help address these vulnerabilities — especially in a country like Kenya, which relies heavily on imports, according to Shah. 

"For us and for 3D printing in Kenya, that's a big void that can be filled — looking at 3D printing not as a hobbyist tool or a prototyping tool, but as a manufacturing tool."

Shah said his company is now planning to collaborate with ventilator producers to help make ventilator splitters, a part that allows a single mechanical vent to work for two patients.  

"That's the beauty of 3D printing. In a couple of hours, you can switch from doing one product to doing another and then immediately start producing that." 

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