From libraries offering virtual storytime sessions, to martial arts centres delivering classes via Zoom, the unique challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have sparked innovation across society, and the engineering community is no different.
Around the world, engineers are coming together to share ideas, experiment and find solutions, developing creative ways to help fend off a potential medical supplies shortage in the process.
An array of online communities have surfaced in recent weeks, including Helpful Engineering, a group developed by management and machine learning freelancer Charles He, based in British Columbia, Canada.
He had the idea to connect people who wanted to work on devices to assist in the fight against the pandemic. Within sixteen days his Slack-based initiative grew to more than 13,000 users worldwide, with members including programmers, engineers, owners of 3D printers, neuroscientists and nurses.
A series of projects have developed, with groups focusing on everything from 3D printing and legal advice to an idea for an ultraviolet disinfection system. One team also has the beginnings of an ‘offset ventilator’ – an idea to turn a ventilation airbag into an autonomous ventilator, with the help of basic machinery.
Another online community, COVID-19 Makers describes itself as “a community of makers and engineers in the UK organised to design and build medical equipment and ventilators to save lives and our healthcare system in the fight against COVID-19”.
The group intends to map production capabilities geographically and then organise engineers and makers locally into groups, to print and manufacture designs efficiently.
Similarly, Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies, a Facebook group with more than 60,000 members, aims to assist in providing emergency medical supplies around the world.
Founded by Gui Cavalcanti, an engineer by training, the group is a repository of information and open-source designs for medical supplies. Cavalcanti and his peers are working with distilleries and fabricators to produce hand sanitiser, with another member, Trevor Smale, publishing preliminary open source designs of a low-tech ventilator that can be pumped by hand.
In the US, three friends including Lennon Rodgers, Director of the Engineering Design Innovation Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently responded to a hospital’s callout for face shields.
Rodgers developed a prototype using materials from hardware and craft stores, after which the friends collaborated to develop a lighter model. Once the hospital approved the prototype, Rodgers posted the design online and an ad-hoc collective was initiated, supplying more than 1000 face shields.
Ford has since picked up the design, and has plans to supply more than 75,000 face masks to Detroit area hospitals.
3D printing solutions
Another example of engineering innovation comes from Issinova, the Italian start-up that reverse-engineered a 3D printed version of a respirator valve.
Supplying 100 of these venturi valves to Chiari hospital in northern Italy within just a few days, the team was later approached to assist with Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) masks, for sub-intensive care patients suffering from COVID-19.
The team engineered an ‘emergency ventilator mask’, modifying a snorkelling mask from sporting goods retailer Decathlon. The engineers designed a modification within three days, and, after Chiari hospital doctors tested their prototype, went on to print 50 of the pieces needed to alter the mask into a CPAP machine. They were subsequently supported by other 3D printing companies in creating 1000 new machines.
“The feedback has all been positive, not because it’s the biggest therapy in the world, but because they can apply some therapy to people that they haven’t been able to help before,” Issanova engineer Alessandro Romaioli said.
“Hospitals are going to run out of breathing masks, biomedical or certified, but these homemade masks can treat some patients that they couldn’t before.”
Meanwhile, in Spain, an engineer has designed the first industrialised field 3D printed emergency respiration device, to support hospitals and Intensive Care Units (ICUs).
The mechanical bag valve mask (BVM) was developed as part of an alliance that included HP, Leitat (Technological Centre) and the Hospital Parc Taulí de Sabadell.
Leitat’s senior engineer, Magí Galindo, developed the field respirator, which is designed to be used for short term emergency ventilation of COVID-19 patients.
Airbus and Navantia have since joined the alliance to assist with production.
In the UK, an interdisciplinary team of engineers, anaesthetists and surgeons from the University of Oxford and King’s College London are building and testing prototypes for rapidly deployable ventilators.
Working in response to the UK Government’s call to increase the country’s ventilator manufacturing capacity, the team is developing prototypes that can be manufactured using techniques and tools available in university and small and medium enterprise (SME) workshops.
They hope to develop a prototype that satisfies the requirements of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) within the coming weeks, with a mature manufacturing network expected to be achievable within two to three months.
“This extraordinary situation demands an extraordinary response and we are pulling all the talents together in an exceptional team combining decades of experience translating research into the clinic, brilliant innovators, and highly skilled technicians,” said Professor Thompson from the University of Oxford’s Department of Engineering Science.
A risky business?
As any good engineer would ask: what about the risk? Is there a risk to the open source medical projects popping up? And will they make a difference in the long run?
The design for Issanova’s emergency ventilator mask, available for free in seven languages on their website, includes a document to be signed for the use of the device in an emergency situation.
Translated from Italian, their website notes: “The idea is designed for healthcare facilities and … where [it] is not possible to find official healthcare supplies. Neither the mask nor the link are certified and their use is subject to a situation of mandatory need.”
Calvancati of the Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies group noted that the maker and open-source movement could prove useful in the future, depending upon how overloaded countries’ healthcare systems become.
“This is a pandemic that’s going to happen everywhere,” he said.
“It’s not going to discriminate, and if we aren’t making sure everybody’s taken care of, we’ll continue to get sick.”
And for Brian Finch, part of the team working on the ‘offset ventilator’ through Helpful Engineering, it’s about being part of the greater movement.
“Even if we don’t succeed at this particular project with this particular design, I’m optimistic that with so many people working on this problem, somebody is going to find a solution,” he said.
“I could either sit at home, nervously refreshing Reddit and feeling bad about the state of the world, or I can still feel bad about the state of the world but at least know that I’m giving it my best.”