UF mobilizes campus, Exactech expertise to make vital COVID-19 nasal swabs

When University of Florida Health needed a massive supply of nasal swabs for expanded COVID-19 testing, the solution was right on campus and just across town.

It came from Forrest J. Masters, Ph.D., P.E., a professor and the associate dean for research and facilities at UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. Working with the 3D printing lab at UF’s Marston Science Library and Gainesville orthopaedic implant maker Exactech, the group is making 100,000 swabs for UF Health.

On March 30, officials with the UF Health pathology department approached Masters about the possibility of producing nasal swabs. Masters and his team found that an existing 3D printed nasopharyngeal swab design could be produced locally and quickly.

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The design for the 3D-printed swab was developed by the University of South Florida, Northwell Health and 3D printer manufacturer Formlabs. David P. Norton, Ph.D., UF’s vice president for research, helped pave the way by rapidly securing the manufacturing rights for the swab design. 

Randell Duggins, innovative media facilitator at the Marston Science Library’s 3D printing lab, began researching the requirements for mass-producing the swabs. The swabs needed to be produced in a certified medical device production facility to meet UF Health’s needs and federal guidelines. Among the few qualified local firms was Exactech, a manufacturer of bone and joint restoration products. Exactech was co-founded by Gary Miller, Ph.D., a UF engineering alumnus and benefactor of the engineering college and the university.  

Within days, Scott Powell, operations manager for the Powell Family Structures and Materials Laboratory, part of UF’s department of civil and coastal engineering, had gathered every available Formlabs 3D printer he could find, on campus and off, for production.

By April 19, UF personnel were inside Exactech preparing for production. 

“Clearly, there was a sense of urgency to get this done and everyone pulled together. It’s been great to work across the UF campus and the community. That’s what allowed us to move so quickly,” Masters said. 

The process itself is fairly simple: A tank filled with resin feeds a 3D printer. About 15 hours later, a batch of 324 swabs emerges. The swabs are then sent to UF Health for final sterilization and packaging. At Exactech’s Northwest Gainesville headquarters, a sterile lab has 14 printers producing the swabs. By May 4, production capacity had reached approximately 4,500 swabs per day, and maximum daily output may reach 7,200.

Exactech loaned four 3D printers to the cause, provided production space at its facility and supplied a team of nine people to establish everything required for a fully functional production line. The company also shared its proficiency in 3D printing, quality testing, manufacturing process documentation and working through details with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Those capabilities helped to expedite the nasal swab production. 

“We went from a three-hour setup time for each printing batch to just 30 minutes,” Duggins said. 

The 3D printing process also offers a significant advantage over conventional manufacturing because the swabs can be produced locally using computer-assisted design software and compact printers, said Robin Barney, Exactech’s senior vice president of operations and supply chain. 

For a company with long, deep ties to UF, collaborating on a critical project was particularly gratifying, Exactech officials said.

“This project is a welcome and timely continuation of the long-standing relationship between UF and Exactech. Our founders — orthopaedic surgeon Bill Petty, M.D., and biomedical engineer Gary Miller, Ph.D., — were faculty and research colleagues in the College of Medicine prior to starting Exactech in 1985. As we have grown, we have naturally gained many UF alumni on our team and the ongoing collaboration comes naturally,” said Priscilla Bennett, vice president of corporate marketing and communication at Exactech.  

The availability of 3D printers was also critical for increasing production capacity. Several UF engineering departments loaned their printers — the department of chemical engineering (two printers), the department of computer & information science & engineering (one printer) and the department of civil & coastal engineering (three printers) — and UF Health Jacksonville loaned one printer. Norton also authorized the purchase of three additional printers as production plans were finalized.

“When UF Health asked us to explore alternatives to obtain more swabs to increase testing for the coronavirus, we were very pleased to learn that Exactech could help us quickly stand up an operation,” Masters said. “Our community is fortunate to have such excellent resources and expertise in place. On top of this, we have had total commitment from every stakeholder every step of the way. You can’t expect anything better than this outcome.”

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