There can be nothing more heartbreaking than watching your child struggle to breathe. But sadly, a range of respiratory conditions mean that some babies and young children have trouble breathing naturally.
Currently there are two main ways of keeping these children alive – and both can be problematic.
Inserting a tube into the neck causes discomfort and can lead to infection and other medical problems. It also costs the NHS around £110,000 a year per patient.
The other treatment is to use a face mask, covering the nose and mouth, to help the child breathe. But for this to work the mask needs to fit exactly to the face. And masks that fit children's faces are hard to find.
This leaves the parent with a painful choice. Fit the face mask too loosely and gaps at the side will let air out, stopping your child breathing properly. Fit it too tightly and it could cause pressure sores or even facial deformities.
That's where 3D printing comes in.
The power of 3D printing
We are working on an innovative use of 3D assessment and manufacturing technologies to deliver masks that fit to the needs of individual patients.
First, we scan the child’s face. Then we can use a 3D printer to create a mask that is made just for them.
Whether the mask is printed in hospital, in a pharmacy, or elsewhere, the patient gets a face mask that fits better and allows them to breathe in comfort.
Our tests have already shown that our method is perceived as being more comfortable than a standard mass-produced mask. The next stage is to test the new masks with patients. We're also working on how the technology could be best introduced throughout the NHS.
This kind of work is what we're all about: using design to meet society's needs, and showing how design can improve people's lives.
This research is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (Invention for Innovation, i4i; II-LB-0814-20004; Development of customised non-invasive ventilation interfaces for children for whom current commercial masks are unavailable or unsuitable to improve ventilation therapies and reduce complications.). The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the NHS, the National Institute for Health Research or the Department of Health and Social Care.