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3D printing not everyhing: Harvard researchers find way to mass produce nasal swabs cheaply and in bulk using old-fashioned injection molding

Starting this week, some people going in for Covid-19 testing in New York City will be asked to have two swabs stuck up their noses, one a traditional plastic stick tipped with cotton or nylon, the other also a plastic stick, but one that ends in a corkscrew design rather than having something absorbent attached to it, and designed by researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute, based at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

The researchers began working with their medical colleagues at the hospital last month after the hospital ran into the national shortage of the swabs. If it proves effective in collecting samples, it could be rushed into production, providing hundreds of thousands of inexpensive swabs with which to test people for the presence of the virus, the Harvard Gazette reports.

Other researchers have looked at using 3D printers to replace traditional swabs, which works, but which turns out is fairly expensive and limited by the fact that few fabrication plants have the 3D capacity to turn out items in the sort of quantities needed.

In contrast, the Gazette reports, the Wyss researchers have focused on injection molding, a relatively inexpensive plastics process that dates back decades and is already in common use by medical-device manufacturers: Basically, melted plastic is poured into a mold and then allowed to cool.

The Wyss scientists did use 3D printing to work out their initial design, but now have a manufacturer in California that can turn out 200,000 of the new swabs once they're approved by the FDA.


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This is a classic -- if you are a hammer -- everything looks like a nail

So far 3D printing has been good at making small numbers of relatively complicated things. Some types of 3D printing have been exceptional at making some things which you essentially can't make by traditional means.

However -- unless someone comes up with a new way to do 3D printing rapidly and at low materials cost -- it is unlikely anytime soon to compete with transitional means [injection molding, thermal vacuum forming, etc., for making lots [millions] of not complicated things -- such as a corkscrew nasal swab.

Simple analogy [admittedly imperfect]:
best for Traditional means such as injection molding -- a dozen muffins in a muffin pan
best for 3D -- style fabrication -- fancy decorated multi-layer cake

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3D printing is great at letting you do rapid prototyping so you can have the thing in your hand in a day. But only one thing at a time. Once you've done the testing with the 3D printed prototypes, then it's time to get your toolmaker to make a mold and a few weeks later you can start pumping out the final product by the ton.

E: Yeah, what rascalking said.

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3d printing is most useful for rapid prototyping and small production runs. The idea traditionally has been to use it to finalize your design before taking on the much more expensive process of casting injection molds for large-scale production.

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