Medical Device Company Threatens to Sue Italians Who 3D Printed Valves for Ventilators

One good thing about a world-wide crisis, in this case, the coronavirus pandemic, is that it drives innovation. Such has been the case in Italy, where the cases of coronavirus cases severe enough are skyrocketing and placing a severe strain on that country’s healthcare system.

One of the shortages that have imperiled patient care has been those of ventilators. People with compromised respiratory systems need help breathing while their bodies deal with fighting off the disease. If they don’t have ventilators, they will die.

Business Insider describes the problem facing one hospital in Italy.

“A few days ago, the staff at a hospital in Italy realized they were running out of valves for patients’ respirators, which are essential for the most serious cases of COVID-19 when patients are admitted to the ICU. The supplier wasn’t able to provide them in the short term, as the company itself was facing a shortage caused by the outbreak. Italy has been hit incredibly hard, resulting in more than 2,500 deaths.”

The hospital in question is located outside the town of Chiari in the region of Lombardy, one of the hardest hit from the coronavirus. The hospital sent out a call through a newspaper called Giornale di Brescia. The cry for help was noticed by a physicist named Massimo Temporelli, founder of a company called FabLab.

FabLab, located in Milan, was not able to help. However, Temporelli passed the information along to a small startup he knew about called Isinnova, which is close to the hospital and has an essential piece of technology, a 3D printer.

3D printing is an emerging technology that is upending industries from aerospace to food production. A 3D printer has a design of an object programmed into it. It uses the material to build the object from the ground up, essentially printing a three-dimensional object. One advantage that 3D printing has is that it can rapidly prototype any object that is desired.

Within six hours of receiving the call, Isinnova was able to produce a working valve. The hospital approved the 3D printed valve for use and, in short order, ten valves were produced, allowing ten critically ill patients to live where they otherwise might have died. The company now plans to produce valves for ventilators all over Italy, likely saving countless lives.

Just to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, the original manufacturer of the valve is threatening to sue Isinnova for patent infringement. This threat was made even though the Italian 3D printing company had asked for the blueprints of the valve and were refused. The engineers at Isinnova were compelled to measure the original valves and use that information to create the 3D printed copies.

The unnamed medical device company many have much to worry about. Using conventional manufacturing techniques, it costs $11,000 to create one of the valves in question. Issinova, working pro bono, was able to create the same valve for just one dollar.

The owners of the Italian 3D printing company have vowed that they are making no profit from their operation. They are doing this thing, patent infringement nor not, just to save lives.

Whether or not the medical device company in question follows through with its threat to sue is open to question. Whatever the merits of its case, it may have a hard row to hoe convincing a court to look upon such a legal action with favor. The idea of a company protecting its profits at the expense of human lives would not have a good look.

Besides, 3D printing is the wave of the future. More and more companies are adopting technology to improve the quality of their products and lower their cost. It does not take a smart business analyst to wonder if the medical device company in question might better serve its interests by contracting with Issinova to make valves for their products, hence lowering their costs and gaining a competitive advantage.

In the meantime, Issinova came in for some praise from Italy’s Minister of Technological Innovation Paola Pisano. The Minister congratulated all of those involved in the achievement that brought a new technology to bear on alleviating the dire effects of the coronavirus pandemic.