Coronavirus: 3D printed swabs help solve COVID-19 testing kit shortage

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A shortage of nasal swabs is one of the hurdles to widespread COVID-19 testing. A San Francisco company that makes large-scale 3D printers has developed an innovative solution, becoming a major manufacturer of the diagnostic swabs.

The majority of the swabs used by the test kits come from Italy or from a domestic source in Maine. While they look similar to Q-tips, the six-inch-long swabs are complex medical devices that need a rigid handle but a flexible neck to obtain the virus sample from the throat through the nose. They're known as nasopharyngeal or NP swabs.

"The immediate need is to be able to ship tens of millions of NP swabs into the market to be able to conduct tests that otherwise can't be done," said Chris Prucha, co-founder and CEO of Origin.

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Origin makes high-level 3D printers for the automotive and footwear industries and for the federal government. But it realized its equipment could play an important role in the pandemic. It began to collaborate with others to develop 3D printed swabs that would pass both FDA and clinical research standards. It succeeded.

"Within a week, we hit a run rate of about 250,000 swabs per week, and we're on our way scaling upwards to being able to deliver a million per week," said Prucha.

3D printing is good at making the intricate lattice design that is similar to a brush to collect the virus sample. They had to balance patient comfort with the ability to collect a reliable sample. 20 prototypes were tested simultaneously until the best design emerged and received approval. They also focused on using only one material to make the swabs to simplify sourcing and to avoid potential supply interruptions.

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3D printing is a mostly automated system, allowing for around-the-clock production with only four humans required. Orders are pouring in now from test kit makers and from medical labs anxious to meet the demand for more testing.

"It's actually quite an exciting thing for the team," Prucha said. "There's quite a mission behind it, and it's really transformed our company and our culture."

A consortium of 3D manufacturers, including Origin, has promised to ship between seven and 10 million swabs a week within a couple of weeks.

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