Chua Chee Kai
Printing an Arsenal of Pandemic PreparednessProfessor, Head of Pillar and Cheng Tsang Man Chair Professor at Singapore University of Technology and Design
Think 3D printing in Singapore, and the first name that will probably come to mind is SUTD’s Professor Chua Chee Kai, one of the world’s leading experts in the area. We speak to him about his thoughts on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the field of additive manufacturing, and how it will continue to influence it in the years to come.
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented strain on supply chains worldwide. Demand for healthcare supplies has skyrocketed, but lockdowns around the globe has brought manufacturing to a near standstill.
This predicament has placed a fresh spotlight on the world of additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. The technology has been around for decades, but while it has gained much traction in many industries, the biomedical field has not been one of them. However, its unique ability to produce important supplies on demand has highlighted just useful it can be in global emergencies such as this.
Enter Professor Chua Chee Kai, who heads Engineering Product Development at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). The most published and most cited scientist in 3D printing, Prof Chua’s experience in additive manufacturing spans around 30 years, making him the foremost expert in Singapore in the field.
Recently, Prof Chua published a piece in prestigious academic journal Nature about the rise in 3D printing during the pandemic. In an interview with RIE NEWS, he shares his thoughts about this trend, and what lies in the future of 3D printing.
You wrote a piece in Nature about the rise in 3D printing during the pandemic. What do you think led to the rise in interest in 3D printing? Are there any needs that the technology is uniquely well-placed to meet, for instance?
The rise of interest in 3D printing is dependent on many factors. For instance, the flexibility and fast prototyping of 3D printing allows for quick deployments and rapid responses to emergencies. In addition, critical parts can be readily manufactured on-demand by any 3D printing facility amid severe disruptions in supply chains. These characteristics have enabled 3D printing technology to play a significant role in mitigating this global health crisis.
What was your personal experience like, observing the rapid rise in interest in 3D printing technology?
In times of crisis, we have seen many people collaborating and contributing selflessly. The 3D printing technology has become a rallying point for communities to freely share ideas, designs, know-how, knowledge and resources to help one another.
It is always comforting to know that people from different parts of the world stand together on a united front to fight against the COVID-19 virus. For instance, we previously came upon a news article stating that Northwell Health (New York’s largest healthcare provider) was willing to share their 3D printed nasal swabs design files with other institutions. We contacted them and they readily shared their design files of the 3D printed nasal swabs and technical know-how with us. I hope that this kind of collaboration will still remain strong even after the pandemic.
How about locally and within South-east Asia? How has the regional 3D printing community responded to this trend?
In an effort to join hands with professional communities to fight COVID-19 pandemic, SUTD supported Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) in enhancing their new face shield frame design using cutting edge 3D-printing technologies. In addition, utilising our in-house design capabilites, we have been working closely with TTSH to improve the original design to increase its strength and durability.
SUTD alumni also came together to 3D-print ear guards (a plastic tension release band worn at the back of the head, designed to hold the elastic straps of surgical masks and bring relief from discomfort around the ears) for COVID-19 healthcare workers.
Outside of SUTD, Singapore-based companies Creatz3D and AuMed have used the 3D printing technology to fabricate life-sized medical manikins. These medical manikins complement existing training materials and allow healthcare workers to practice COVID-19 swab testing procedures with standard medical-grade swabs. I always feel a strong sense of pride when I see Singaporeans contributing innovatively and selflessly in this fight against the COVID-19.
How do you think the pandemic will impact the future of 3D printing, as well the medical device manufacturing field as a whole? What are your hopes of what the community and technology will look like in the next pandemic?
While 3D printing bodes an exciting future, the acceleration in 3D printing is also being driven by the change in the production-consumption model due to social, ecological, and technological megatrends, coupled with externalities such as COVID-19.
The 3D printing landscape is changing rapidly in response to COVID-19. However, 3D printing facilities and 3D printed parts for the medical industry both need to meet stringent medical regulations in order to be certified safe for use. Regulations often have the tendency to lag behind innovation, thus causing serious bottlenecks in the mass adoption of 3D printed medical devices. I believe that strong regulatory frameworks must be established first in order to gain greater confidence and wider adoption of 3D-printed medical devices.
I hope that the next pandemic does not come. Even the next pandemic does come, international and scientific communities will take the threat of pandemics more seriously. More resources will also be invested in technology for detecting and responding to outbreaks in better preparing the world for the next pandemic. The healthcare industry may have more accepting attitudes towards 3D printing technologies in the future, as the COVID-19 pandemic situation has raised awareness of how 3D printing technologies can fit in and complement the current healthcare system. Hospitals hopefully will begin to take more ownership of their supply chain, where 3D printers can be brought in to ease critical shortages.
Despite it getting more attention recently, 3D printing has been around for a long time, and it’s a very established technology. Are there any breakthroughs in 3D printing technology we can look forward to, or that you’re hoping to see?
Yes, 3D printing has been around for more than three decades. The technology was initially used for prototyping purposes and hence, it was widely known as ‘rapid prototyping’ in the 1980s.
In recent years, it has has been getting more established and reliable as the technology for printing process and printable materials advances significantly. We will start to see more companies exploring, accepting, and adopting 3D printing technology for parts manufacturing in the near future. Due to the expiry of several leading 3D printing patents, prices of 3D printers have also come down, leading to greater adoption.
One exciting area to look out for is generative design with 3D printing. 3D printing technologies usually offer large amounts of design freedom, enabling the fabrication of complex geometries in a cost-effective manner. Coupling generative design with 3D printing technologies can bring us many benefits – for instance, parts can be printed with increased functionality and performance, while reducing waste, material, and weight. In addition, generative design can also reduce the need for companies to maintain huge inventories by ‘printing on demand’.
Let’s talk a bit about SUTD. Are there any projects or research work ongoing in SUTD that is related to COVID-19, or infectious diseases as a whole? Perhaps highlight one or two that you find particularly interesting or impactful.
To date, there are 19 projects and research work (and counting) ongoing in SUTD that are related to COVID-19 by faculty, staff, researchers, students and alumni. Associate Professor Ye Ai’s research work is one of the projects that I find particularly impactful. His research team is developing a gentle cell purification technology and working to develop an antibody treatment for combating COVID-19 and other coronaviruses.
Currently, peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) samples from recently recovered COVID-19 patients are collected for performing single cell antibody sequencing assays. This is to identify B cells that will generate antibodies targeting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, the existing purification method of B cells from PBMC can cause too much cell damage that will adversely affect the B cell antibody sequencing assays.
Dr Ye Ai’s acoustic cell sorting technology can isolate target B cells with high purity and no cell damage to assist the development of antibody treatment for COVID-19. Currently, they are still testing their acoustic cell sorting technology. The current standard is about 50 per cent, so half of the cells, which may be the target B cells generating antibodies again SARS-CoV-2 virus, will be lost.
Preliminary results have proven that their technology can maintain over 95 per cent cell viability after sorting, which is significantly better than the current standards. Once the whole validation is complete, their cell sorting can be a routine cell purification step to develop antibody treatments for other infectious diseases.
What do you think young or aspiring researchers in the 3D-printing field should take away from this pandemic? Do you have any advice for them?
From this pandemic, young or aspiring researchers in the 3D printing field should take away this quote: “In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity”. This pandemic may change the way we live, work, and play, but it doesn’t limit our creativity and innovative thinking.
As young aspiring researchers, they should always keep a keen eye on finding innovative ways to improve the current situation so that the society can move forward as a whole. 3D printing has proven itself to be a handy tool to turn creative ideas into a tangible reality in a short time.