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Combating Covid-19: photonics industry keeps innovating

22 Apr 2020

From 3D-printing protective equipment, to working on treatment technologies and developing contact-tracing and social distancing apps.

The Covid-19 pandemic is currently paralyzing public and private life and in many places there is a lack of medical equipment and viable solutions to protect society against the spread of the virus. Together with institutions from all over Europe, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology (ILT) is supporting companies in the EU project AMable in implementing new Additive Manufacturing ideas to help overcome production bottlenecks.

AMable has paved the way for SMEs to achieve successful industrial 3D printing of metal and plastic. Now the partners are offering aid and public funding for Covid-19 projects. The partners (listed here) are calling for ideas to be submitted in a first step and applicable solutions for the additive manufacture of new products in a second step.

Within the framework of the EU’s I4MS initiative (ICT Innovation for Manufacturing SMEs), they have promoted 3D printing with metal and plastic for SMEs. They are looking at measures to quickly come up with solutions for the vital work of hospitals, medical practices and nursing staff.

AMable offers universal support in all phases of additive manufacturing. The platform’s partners provide the necessary expertise for implementing reliable 3D printing processes with materials of all kinds – from plastic or metal to ceramics. However, currently there is a greater demand for small extruder 3D printers on site so that products can be produced locally and on demand.

“There are already many ideas from SMEs for solving this pressing problem with the aid of additive processes,” commented Ulrich Thombansen, project coordinator and scientist at Fraunhofer ILT. “We are investigating in which cases 3D printing can be used to produce components faster and more reliably than conventional processes and how current needs can be met as quickly as possible with new solutions.”

Accordingly, the message is “Name ideas for 3D printing that can be used, for example, to do medical technology work better and easier than before. What we want to understand is where Additive Manufacturing can make a contribution to reduce the impact of the pandemic.”

A total of €350,000 is available. Ideally, said Thombansen, each solution will lead to a freely-accessible design file including documentation with a precise description of the process. It should enable users to additively manufacture components reliably at the push of a button. One example Thombansen described is a project at the University of Marburg, Germany, where a team has already modified existing CPAP devices for the treatment of sleep apnea for use with Covid-19 patients.

Luxinar is a manufacturer of sealed carbon dioxide laser sources up to 1000W and, more recently, femtosecond laser sources. The company is now supporting a number of its customers, partner organizations and colleagues in the fight against Covid-19.

Customers are ramping up or switching production to respond to the increased demand for coronavirus-related products; these include the 24-hour injection molding facility of UK-based Advanced Plastics and the manufacturing sites of a global cleaning product supplier.

A major partner of Luxinar, employer-led school Ron Dearing UTC has supplied perspex sheets to Luxinar so that colleagues in the company’s applications laboratories can laser cut and engrave visors. This is in support of the Hull, UK-based school’s initiative to create face shields for key healthcare workers dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Also, in response to the UK’s National Health Service call for 3D printed parts, colleagues at Luxinar are using printers that they have either borrowed or made in-house to produce face masks for NHS health workers throughout the country. Darren Taylor, Senior Manufacturing Engineer at Luxinar and in charge of the project said, “I have been astounded by the response and support I have been given through this activity.”

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Zepler Institute for Photonics and Nanoelectronics, Southampton, UK, has supplied around 50,000 pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) to the UK National Health Service.

Following a request from the NHS Clinical Commissioning Group, staff from the Zepler Institute helped collect stocks of PPE, including gloves, masks, overshoes, and safety glasses. The contribution is part of around 80,000 pieces of protective gear passed from the University of Southampton to the city's NHS.

The PPE will be distributed to local primary care services, care homes and domiciliary support services. Professor Sir David Payne, Director of the Zepler Institute, said, "There has been a fantastic collaborative response across the University and I hope this equipment can ease some of the pressure on frontline NHS staff. Alongside other University departments, researchers in the Zepler Institute are advancing essential research on several Covid-19 related projects and I hope this work will have a substantial impact on defeating the disease in the near future."

The Southampton Coronavirus Response Fund has been set up to support and accelerate the University's urgent work in tackling the global pandemic. In one project, engineers and medical staff are working with industry partners including McLaren and Kemp Sails to test a prototype of a personal respirator they have developed for frontline healthcare staff. Researchers in the university’s Faculty of Medicine are also trialing an inhaled drug that could prevent worsening of Covid-19 in those most at risk.

Canadian firm Spartan Bioscience has obtained Health Canada’s approval for use of the Spartan Cube (pictured left) for Covid-19 testing. Ottawa-based Iridian Spectral Technologies’ optical filters are a key component in this instrument. Iridian commented, “Through an extensive manufacturing effort by all of our employees, we have been able to supply optical filters to support the increased production of the Spartan Cube."

Iridian is a diversified optical filter manufacturer that is an international leader in filter design and manufacture especially for application in the fields of fiber optic communications, biomedical optical spectroscopy, 3D entertainment, and in aerospace. Iridian is a global supplier with distributors in many countries.

Social distancing

A free app to help people observe social distancing to slow the spread of Covid-19 is ready to launch. Devised by Lanterne, a UK start-up company supported by ESA, it uses satellite data and artificial intelligence technologies to identify where people are congregating anywhere in the world.

People who need to leave home to go to the supermarket or the pharmacy can check before they depart whether the shops are becoming crowded. If there are too many people, they can delay their trip until its less busy or switch to less-crowded shops nearby. The “Crowdless” app uses anonymised existing data sources, such as Google Maps and Google Places data, that track the movements of mobile devices. It combines this information with crowd-sourced data by asking the user to confirm whether or not the location is busy.

Lanterne co-founders Alex Barnes, Yohan Iddawela and Sebastian Mueller created the app by applying the skills and knowledge they gained while developing their core product, which is designed to help people in conflict zones to navigate safely. It took them just three days to create the app and it has since gone through six further prototypes over the past four weeks.

Iddawela said, “The mission of our social enterprise, Lanterne, is to use data to improve safety and promote economic development. Our hope is that Crowdless can help people observe social distancing more effectively, stay safe and play a part in slowing down the infection rate of Covid-19.”

Nick Appleyard, Head of Business Applications at ESA, said, “One of ESA’s main priorities is safety and security, assured from space. We are all taking care to maintain social distancing and to avoid crowds, and looking forward to the day that we can resume more normal day-to-day lives. This app can help to bring that day forwards, and to keep us all safe as we do so.” Crowdless is publicly available for free download on iOS and on Android.

Contact tracing

Berlin, Germany-based research center Fraunhofer HHI is taking part in pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing initiative, known as PEPP-PT. The effort is to be incorporated as a non-profit organisation in Switzerland.

A multi-national European team is creating the PEPP-PT system. It is an anonymous and privacy-preserving digital contact tracing approach, which is in full compliance with GDPR and can also be used when traveling between countries through an anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism.

PEPP-PT is designed to be incorporated in national Corona mobile phone apps as a contact tracing functionality and allows for the integration into the processes of national health services. The solution is offered to be shared openly with any country, given the commitment to achieve interoperability so that the anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism remains functional.

Global engineering company, Renishaw, has started mass-producing critical components for medical ventilators, as part of a UK-wide effort to support the NHS in the fight against Covid-19. The company has dedicated a significant part of its manufacturing sites to produce precision-machined components for two different ventilators manufactured by the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium, with production now running seven days a week.

Marc Saunders, Director of Group Strategic Development, who is leading Renishaw's response, explains, “When the government called, we scrambled to respond, and immediately realized the daunting scale of the challenge. Ventilators are sophisticated medical devices and we felt that our capabilities would be best applied to helping scale up the production of designs with existing technologies.”

Renishaw joined other companies in aerospace, automotive, medical and motorsport sectors to form the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium, under the leadership of Dick Elsy, CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. The team is working non-stop to boost production of two proven ventilator types.

Elsy commented, “Manufacturers Penlon and Smiths ordinarily have combined capacity of between 50 and 60 ventilators per week. However, with resources of the consortium, we are targeting production of at least 1,500 units a week. The consortium's key message is that every ventilator produced is a life saved.”

During the Covid-19 crisis period, Bordeaux, France-based laser maker Amplitude Laser is maintaining its commitment to high quality service and care for employees and customers worldwide. On the company’s website is a list of customer support addresses for clients worldwide, with key addresses being: support@amplitude-laser.com (for industrial customers); service@amplitude-technologies.com (for scientific customers) .

If necessary, and following local governmental authorization, our engineers from Amplitude service offices in Europe, America, China, South Korea & Vietnam can intervene on site. Otherwise, lasers specialists are available for remote support. The company states, “We have a complete issue resolution service, including refurbishment and exchange options.”

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