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Doctors Without Borders Testing 3D Printing, VR to Deploy and Design Hospitals

New technology may help get hospitals in the field faster

Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF), the international medical non-profit, doesn’t shy away from dangerous war zones or precarious security situations. It’s quite the opposite. Known for setting up field hospitals and clinics around the world, from the Philippines to Afghanistan and Syria, the organization wants to move into dangerous areas even faster. According to the organization's technical team leader Elvina Motard, MSF sees 3D-printing and virtual reality as new means to help them design, build, and deploy even faster.

"It’s all about how fast we can change," says Motard, "how fast we can interact on site. So for me, in the future, it’s about using this technology to be more dynamic."

While MSF moves fast, it still takes months to fully set up a remote hospital. Medical teams meets with designers, who sketch out plans, determine the best locations for features such as operating theaters and maternity wards, and then create a 2D sketch. While that process is taking place, a team on the ground will scout out land for construction. While makeshift clinics can be set up rapidly, more fleshed-out infrastructure can require numerous drafts and months of work.

Earlier this year, MSF partnered with the design firm Pyxis to test out the technology, creating a model of a hospital the group set up in the Philippines in 2013 to help during the recovery from Typhoon Haiyan. In addition to creating a 3D model, Pyxis also built a game engine that allowed staff to walk through the mock hospital in virtual reality. While the first trial took four months to complete, both groups believe the process will only accelerate with more experience.

Motard believes that integrating 3D printing and virtual reality technology into their standard process can help cut precious weeks and even months off the design phase of such a large-scale project. The three-dimensional model enables designers and medical teams to hash out building layouts faster, and virtual reality walk-throughs make it easier to understand the flow of patients, staff, and materials through a proposed building.

Motard also sees a bright future for augmented reality. In addition to helping designers make changes more quickly, it also may allow doctors to interact remotely with patients from different cities or countries. The organization plans to use some of this technology for training purposes over the next few week, allowing staff at the headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, get acquainted with their eventual post before they even arrive.