As the COVID pandemic began to drive rapid changes in healthcare, innovative manufacturers and makers around the world began using 3D printing and generative design to fill a dire need for masks, swabs, ventilator components, and other medical equipment. That pivot, and the stages that followed, are the subject of a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business.

For the study, titled “The Role of Generative Design and Additive Manufacturing Capabilities in Developing Human-AI symbiosis: Evidence from Multiple Case Studies,” researchers identified 48 European and U.S.-based manufacturing businesses — including medical — that pivoted their operations during the pandemic.

The researchers then interviewed supply chain managers, technology managers, engineers, and other leaders from those companies at three different points: from May to July 2020, when COVID-19 was taking hold globally; November 2020 to January 2021, as the pandemic shock evolved; and July 2022 to November 2022, when the COVID emergency had mostly passed.

They found the companies that were more successful in pivoting had ramped up their additive manufacturing — also known as 3D printing — which allowed them to make enormous leaps. For example, shoe brand New Balance switched its production lines from sport shoes to face masks and other personal protective equipment, or PPE, for a local hospital.

“Using standard manufacturing processes, it’s very difficult for companies to move from one product to another, and it can be very expensive — new equipment, new machines, new production lines,” says Samuel Roscoe, an additive manufacturing expert and UBC Sauder lecturer who co-authored the study.

“But with 3D printing, you can just change the design, enter that new design into a machine, and begin spitting out different types of products. So it gives you this element of flexibility — and the pandemic encouraged that novel thinking.”

Roscoe says the companies that had the most success with 3D printing also used generative design — so instead of only using human designers to create plans for new products, they used artificial intelligence to generate optimal designs.

Looking back at the pandemic stages, Roscoe says companies scrambled at first, then determined what was possible, then worked with the technology — to the point where by late 2020 and early 2021, it was embedded in their operations. Now additive manufacturing and generative design are simply part of their everyday practices.

Sherrie Trigg

Editor and Director of Medical Content

To read the full report, go here .