Dubai-based 3D printing start-up Immensa, which specialises in manufacturing spare parts used in the oil and gas industry, is switching gears to produce medical face shields to help stem the coronavirus outbreak.
The company's engineers took about six hours to adapt hardware to produce the shields and is currently dedicating 30 to 40 per cent of its capacity on their production.
"Three weeks back, a couple of European companies requested us to make ventilator parts and face masks using 3D printing and we started reviewing all available possibilities," Fahmi Al Shawwa, founder and chief executive of Immensa, told The National.
“Our engineers further developed the idea and started manufacturing 3D-printed face shields that are proving quite useful.”
It has supplied nearly 5,000 units of these face shields to different organisations including Hira Industries and Emirates Food Industries.
The face shields are handy for individuals working in healthcare and food industries and for those whose jobs require regular human interaction such as drivers, delivery people and supermarket employees, said Mr Shawwa.
“We are scaling up and aiming to produce close to 20,000 units in a week. We have received inquiries from Bahrain and Kuwait and are currently finalising on how to ship them.”
Immensa's move to retool its operations comes as industrial giants globally transform their production capabilities to plug a shortage of medical supplies such as surgical masks and ventilators. US car makers such as Ford and General Motors have now diverted operations to produce masks and ventilators.
Immensa is also planning to make 3D-printed connectors that could allow one ventilator to help four patients simultaneously.
“Globally, hospitals don’t have enough ventilators and the problem could escalate in the coming days. Using 3D connectors, four people can use one machine,” said Mr Shawwa.
“We have already tested the prototypes and they are good to go. We have informed various medical organisations, such as Dubai Health Authority, about this product and we are ready to supply it for free whenever there is a need.”
In a similar initiative, an Italian start-up, Isinnova is also using 3D technology to make ventilator valves and masks.
Although the case for replacing industrial manufacturing on a wider scale with 3D printing is unproven, the technology has great potential in many sectors, according to ratings agency Moody’s.
Industries such as aerospace, medical devices, eyewear and automotive will benefit from this technology which rapidly builds a three-dimensional object that can be customised cheaply using a computer-aided design model, Moody’s said in a report last year.
Immensa is closely watching developments in coronavirus-affected countries such as Italy, China and the US to prepare itself to gear up production if the situation worsens in the Middle East.
“We are doing our homework and will be ready if, unfortunately, the situation gets worse in our region. 3D printing offers an economical and faster solution to manufacture spare parts used in any industry,” noted Mr Shawwa.
Founded in 2016, Immensa has two factories in Dubai and Sharjah where 22 engineers work to develop 3D-printed products. The company is planning to open new facilities in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia this year.
“We are expanding so we will be looking to raise new capital in the coming months,” Mr Shawwa said.
The company, whose clients are spread across the Middle East and Europe, sees the coronavirus outbreak as an opportunity to localise industrial spare parts production.
“The UAE has a strong infrastructure to manufacture and export 3D-printed spare parts to the region. It has more 3D printers than the entire Middle East combined.”
According to reports, the market for 3D printing of spare parts in the UAE is expected to reach $600 million (Dh2.2 billion) by the end of 2023.
Immensa is also offering a virtual warehousing facility to its clients in the region.
“There is no need to pile stocks of spare parts… just keep a file in our digital inventory and whenever needed just press a button to start production,” said Mr Shawwa.