3D printing companies have unexpectedly flourished in the present climate amidst relentless demand for medical equipment such as protective gear and respirator valves. Belgian manufacturer Materialise has joined the bandwagon with their own ground-breaking innovation: a hands-free door opener.
Current research suggests that the COVID-19 virus can survive on metal surfaces for up to three days,1 meaning it is easy to get infected just by touching door handles, which are hotspots for contamination since countless people lay their hands on them every day. A 3D printing company from Belgium has come up with an innovative solution to this conundrum.
“The simple solution to that is to just keep the doors open permanently, but that is not an option for all doors,” said Bram Smits, external communications manager of Materialise. “That’s when we came up with the idea of a hands-free door opener.” The novelty allows you to use your arm (ideally covered by a sleeve) instead of your bare hands to open and close doors, reducing the risk of cross-contamination between people.
This printable add-on does not require drilling holes or replacing the door's existing handle. According to Materialise, you only have to fasten the two 3D-printed pieces together with screws over your existing door handle. “We wanted something that was easy to install without having to drill in your doors,” said Smits. “We managed to design in in such a way that you can ‘clamp’ it around a door and screw it together so you can also easily remove it should you no longer require it.”
In a commendable move, the company is releasing the design files online for free and calling upon the global 3D printing community to print the door opener and make it available all around the world. “It soon became clear that more people could benefit from this design and the company decided to make it available for free,” said Smits, stressing that Materialise never intended to make a profit on this idea. “Sales was never the objective. Just as most other companies, we feel that the economic climate is a lot worse than it was 2 months ago. The COVID initiatives will never make up for that," admitted Smits. “We’re just really happy that people are using the design and if we can avoid some COVID cases because of it, the mission is succeeded.”
Indeed, as of 15 April 2020, the files have been downloaded over 60 000 times. While Materialise does not track exactly who downloads the files, “from the reactions, we’ve seen an interest from different groups: companies that want to do the same as us and protect their employees, hospitals ordering or printing on their in-house 3D printing capacity and lots of individuals with their own printers that want to help their community,” Smits revealed to APBN.
One such hospital was Mayo Clinic, which was able to print the hands-free door openers itself, according to a tweet from the director of the clinical 3D-printing lab there.2 For those lacking 3D printing capabilities, the company is offering a set of 2 openers for 30–60 euros, Smits said, adding that they have developed several designs to adapt the product to fit multiple types of doorknobs. “We did some market research to [find out] the most used ones and developed handles for those doors. All the design files are available on our website.”3
According to Smits, the pioneering creation started as an internal discussion on how to protect Materialise employees during the pandemic. “Our design and engineering team managed to come up with the idea and print a final prototype in just 24 hours,” he says. This astonishing feat is all the more stunning given that it was not based on an existing Materialise product. “This was a completely new product,” Smits confirmed.
Having been cast in the spotlight, surely Materialise has received requests to produce urgently needed medical devices? Smits concurred, and described their company’s participation as a three-tiered approach. “We believe 3D printing can help on three different levels: prevention, protection, treatment. Our 3D printed door handle is a good example of prevention. Another example is the 3D printed handles that we developed for shopping carts and that allows shoppers to navigate the trolley with their arms and avoid contact with the handle bar of the trolley.
Many companies, including Materialise, are developing 3D printed protective equipment like face shields. Many have also tried to 3D print FFP2 protective face masks but as far as I know, no one has succeeded in 3D printing masks that offer sufficient safety and security for the caregivers. The last thing we want to do is provide a false sense of safety during this crisis.
For the treatment of patients, we have worked on addressing the shortage of mechanical ventilators by developing a 3D printed NIP Connector: a device to convert standard equipment available in most hospitals, into a mask to facilitate breathing for patients by creating positive pressure in the lungs. These assembled masks allow clinicians to reduce the time patients need access to mechanical ventilators, which helps to reduce the strain on ventilator supplies.”
Smits warned that it is not always ideal, and perhaps even dangerous, to release 3D print files for free. “On all these designs we look at the most efficient way to distribute the devices. Sometimes that’s making the design available on our website. In some other cases we consciously decide to not do that. For medical devices and PPE for example, it’s really important that we manufacture them in a controlled and certified way. For these types of devices, we will look for partnerships.”
In an interesting revelation, Smits disclosed exclusively to APBN that Materialise is seeing isolated examples of an increase in demand for its other products as a result of this hands-free door handle innovation. “The role of 3D printing in addressing the critical needs in the current crisis are certainly increasing broad awareness in industries that had not considered or adopted 3D printing as a complementary manufacturing technology. For example, a large company active in offshore projects had ordered 3D printed door handles for their offices and when 2 weeks later the large ventilator of a large crane in one of their offshore projects broke down they turned to us to 3D print new blades of the ventilator, because the normal production process would have taken several weeks. As a result of the increased awareness, we may see more examples like this.”
Smits concluded by describing 3D printing as a slow revolution. “3D printing is revolutionary because of its capacity to save lives and fundamentally change the way we manufacture products, but it will happen, slowly, incrementally. But now, with increased momentum as a result of the role 3D printing is playing in the crisis, we believe that the pace of that slow revolution may actually increase.”
- van Doremalen, N., Bushmaker, T., Morris, D. H., Holbrook, M. G., Gamble, A., Williamson, B. N., Tamin, A., Harcourt, J. L., Thornburg, N. J., Gerber, S. I., Lloyd-Smith, J. O., de Wit, E., & Munster, V. J. (2020). Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1. New England Journal of Medicine, 382(16), 1564–1567. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMc2004973
About the Interviewee
Bram Smits is the external communications manager of Materialise. He is responsible for the company’s medical press communications, investor relations and public affairs. He has been with the company for six years.