After the COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S. in 2020, it soon became clear that hospitals and health care workers trying to save patients’ lives were severely hampered by a shortage of ventilators, testing swabs and supplies, and personal protective equipment (PPE).
That’s when Fathom, a digital manufacturing company with production locations around the world, decided to turn its powerful 3D printing resources to creating products needed to fill that gap.
The company, which was founded in 1984 and acquired in 2018 by CORE Industrial Partners, a Chicago-based private equity firm, has 180 employees and is headquartered in Hartland, Wisconsin.
Eager to join the fight to save lives and show the value of 3D printing on an industrial scale, Fathom accepted a challenge issued in March 2020 to the design and manufacturing industry to help solve the nasal swab shortage that was limiting COVID-19 testing.
Fathom was uniquely positioned to take up this quest. A leader in additive manufacturing, the company has 90 large-platform 3D printing machines and more than 200,000 square feet of manufacturing capabilities in five facilities across the U.S.
Just as its name implies, additive manufacturing utilizes computer-aided design software or 3D object scanners to direct a printer to add material in layers until it produces the desired object.
The company partnered with medical device company Abiogenix to create a spiral nasopharyngeal (NP) swab test kit that is manufactured by Fathom using multi-jet 3D printing technology.
Their swab was selected from more than 150 designs that were evaluated in a clinical trial.
“A Fathom team worked with clinicians on the front lines to develop a swab that’s easier to use and more comfortable than other 3D printed swabs,” says Rich Stump, co-founder and principal of Fathom.
Fathom and Abiogenix faced various challenges to create the product. The swabs had to be flexible yet sturdy enough to be safely inserted into the nasal cavity. They had to maximize the absorption of viral fluid, and they had to meet FDA requirements for approval.
“The final FAST Spiral NP swab was selected as one of the two most preferred swabs out of the 150 designs in the clinical trial,” Stump notes.
The swabs are made of biocompatible, flexible plastic and have a spiral tip on one end that optimizes sample collection. They also have a single-handed, bend-and-twist functionality for swab separation after a sample is collected.
Through innovative use of the latest additive technologies, Fathom showed that large numbers of swabs could be produced in a short time frame.
“The team developed, tested, manufactured and delivered critical testing supplies across the U.S. in just 35 days, which is weeks—even months— faster than traditional manufacturing methods,” Stump says.
To date, Fathom has manufactured more than 100,000 of the 1.4 million swabs produced.
John May, managing partner at CORE Industrial Partners, says strategic acquisitions have helped make goals like these possible.
“Since our initial investment, the combination of companies we have acquired under the Fathom umbrella, through both organic growth and add-on acquisitions, provide the expertise and technology to solve virtually any need our customers have,” May says.