In early March, Jakub Kaminski was at his home in suburban Boston when a grim message arrived from his friend, a Ukrainian surgeon: tourniquets were rare, and without them many Ukrainian soldiers could bleed and die.
Kaminski, a robotics engineering graduate student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, thought his 3D printing skills might help. Over the next two months, Kaminski and volunteers he recruited designed and refined eight versions of a tourniquet – pieces of fabric connected by loops and plastic securing clips – until they make one that is durable enough for war. It was easy for a soldier to tie and could be printed with consistent quality.
Now they have uploaded their best design on the internet. About 120 individuals and companies around the world equipped with 3D printers have accessed the design. Together they made about 5,000 reusable tourniquets bound for Ukraine, where they will be sewn up and sent to the battlefield, Kaminski said.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “If you make Ukrainians feel better and allow people to help. … It’s something really special.
Nearly four months after Russia invaded Ukraine, critical shortages of medical supplies and weaponry accessories persist. But help came from an unlikely source: those with 3D printers. Using digital files, people design supplies such as bandages, tourniquets, splints and accessories for AK-47 pistols. Using computer-aided design software, special printers create three-dimensional objects with plastics or biomaterials, enabling a large crowdsourcing effort to produce supplies and ship them to the battlefield.
But the invasion has provided the 3D printing community with a challenge beyond compare, one that highlights the impact of technology in filling real-time shortages and highlights the dangers of having to rely on ad-hoc created goods. hoc.
And although the fighting in Ukraine has diminished since its peak, the community continues to create much needed items as the war continues to drag on.
“No one believes [the war] will end very quickly,” Kaminski said. “We want to be ready…for the future.”
The history of 3D printing dates back to the 1980s, when American engineer Charles Hull patented a process called stereolithography, which uses ultraviolet light to shape objects. Over the years, this process was refined and became cheaper and faster, and machines were able to use designs created by software to print things like medical devices, spare parts, toys, and jewelry.
3D printed supplies are often useful in times of crisis. They offer medical workers, military personnel, and aid organizations the ability to design what they need and print items quickly, eliminating the hassle of international shipping and manufacturing delays. But the quality of printed products can be poor, and creating supplies with a 3D printer often takes longer than other methods, such as manufacturing with injection molds.
In 2010, during the devastating earthquake in Haiti, medical devices were printed quickly, allowing doctors to provide healthcare without waiting for equipment to be shipped from overseas. In 2018, an organization called Glia Project came to the aid of Palestinian civilians injured in the Gaza Strip while demonstrating against Israel, by creating and sending them a 3D-printed “Gaza tourniquet”.
But in February, as Russia invaded Ukraine, the 3D printing community was put to the test. The fighting in Ukraine has been fierce, many have been injured and the country’s reserves of basic medical supplies are running low. Members of the 3D printing community chatted with Ukrainian military officials, hospital administrators and charities, trying to assess what they could print quickly and which would be most useful. Tourniquets and bandages were repeated requests.
Mykhailo Shulhan, COO of a 3D printing company in Lviv, Ukraine, said that as soon as the invasion began, he started researching how 3D printers had helped in other conflicts. His company decided to supply trauma bandages – large pieces of fabric that cover large wounds – and produced around 2,000 a month.
But now, Shulhan said, different things are rare. In the early days, he said, when paid military troops made up the bulk of the fighting force, medical supplies were sorely lacking. But over the following months, as more and more volunteers joined the Ukrainian resistance, weapon components and accessories became necessary to cope with the increased number of soldiers.
These days, his company, 3D Tech Addtive, develops and prints a range of weapon accessories: AK-47 holsters so soldiers have a way to rest their guns; bullet magazines since empty cartridges are often thrown away instead of being reused; carrying bags for grenades; and more recently, anti-reflective lenses for sniper scopes to reduce glare and prevent Ukrainian snipers from being seen. (In total, they supplied more than 5,000 components to the frontlines, Shulhan estimated.)
Meanwhile, the pace of production exacted a toll. At the start of the invasion, there were great shortages of printing filament, mainly because local suppliers were in war-torn areas. These suppliers have since moved to western Ukraine and resumed supply.
Now the challenges are different. Almost all of his company’s 30 3D printers come from China, he said, and they have occasionally broken down and needed spare parts. It was difficult to get them as they are expensive and getting them shipped proved difficult. “There are times when a 3D printer breaks down and we can’t do anything with it for two or three weeks,” he said.
While most 3D printers create supplies to stop death or ease combat conditions, others focus on rehabilitating soldiers.
Brett Carey, a physical therapist in Hawaii, is designing 3D-printed splints that can be sent to fighters. Hand fractures are very common in times of war and when improperly treated can cause long term problems. “You need your hands for so many basic hygiene and survival tasks,” he said. “If soldiers are properly strapped in, they should be able to fully use their hand again within eight to 12 weeks.”
Carey has created two digital splint models that have been uploaded online and 3D printed over 1,500 times. If the injuries are advanced, he asks people to send him images of their injuries using EM3D – a 3D imaging app – which allows him to make a bespoke splint which is then shipped to Ukraine. And in the future, he said, supplies that improve long-term medical outcomes will likely be needed.
“There’s such a focus right now on life-saving technology,” he said. “But there is definitely a need on the rehabilitation side, so that after the injury people can start to get their lives back.”
Kaminski, who posts his tourniquet designs online, said he’s worried about some 3D printers sending supplies to the battlefield. At the start of the war, he noticed that many printers wanted to help, but they created models of medical supplies that resulted in poor quality products. He also noticed standard tourniquets made in China being deployed in the field and breaking.
Seeing this, Kaminski and a group of volunteers worked for weeks to redesign their tourniquet to meet the highest medical standards.
Kaminski filmed the device being knocked over by a fire truck to show its durability. Volunteers from labs in Poland tested the 3D-printed tourniquet to prove it could withstand over 150 pounds of pulling pressure. Ultrasound tests were carried out at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to show that the tourniquet could completely stop blood flow. Now Kaminski has sent a batch to a Johns Hopkins University volunteer for testing.
“It’s unethical to just come up with a totally new tourniquet design and deploy it in war,” he said.