New technologies continually define and guide responses across the globe to the new challenges at hand. They ultimately save lives by enhancing our ability to harness resources in original and efficient ways. In times like these, engineers find themselves in a hallowed position, knowing not only how to design new systems and devices, but also how to deliver and maintain them.
We’re taking a look at how engineers across a range of disciplines are contributing to the COVID-19 relief effort worldwide.
On our doorstep (UK)
The Ventilator Challenge UK Consortium includes companies such as Airbus, Ford, GKN Aerospace, Rolls-Royce and Siemens, plus a handful of UK-based Formula 1 teams. Chaired by the CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, Dick Elsy, the Consortium has come together to produce ventilators for the UK in this time of great need. Over 10,000 ventilators have been ordered by the Government from the Consortium, but the team is believed to be scaling up for at least 15,000. The Consortium has responded adopting a set of well-established manufacturing technologies, using materials and parts in current production to achieve Rapid Manufactured Ventilator Systems (RMVS). Mass production lines are being put into place in Luton and Cowes to scale up by a factor of 30 the production of Smiths and Penlon Intensive Care Unit (ICU) ventilators.
The UK is lucky to have at its disposal, through Formula 1, the finest rapid prototyping and precision machine shops anywhere in the world, with crews used to working three shifts (24/7) to achieve startlingly fast engineering solutions. Seven Formula 1 teams including McLaren, Mercedes, Williams and current Aston Martin Red Bull (next year's Aston Martin Formula 1/Racing Point) have pooled their resources in Project Pitlane for the rapid design and build of medical equipment. As a demonstration of the team's capabilities, Mercedes Formula 1, based in Northamptonshire and led by Chief Technical Director Jim Allison, produced their first prototype of a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) ventilator within 100 hours of their first meeting with University College London Hospital.
We are thus seeing possibly unprecedented levels of collaboration and flexibility right on our doorstep, championed by top-of-the-crop engineers who are providing invaluable services to the medical industry in response to this global emergency.
‘North’ of the curve (Sweden)
Swedish news site Aftonbladet has made use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) engineering advances to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to reporting new COVID-19 cases. Developed by engineers at the Swedish tech company United Robots, the AI produces publishable content from large datasets and has previously been used to cover local sports, property sales and business in areas where human reporters may be few and far between. Amidst the pandemic, the technology has been repurposed to report on COVID-19 cases, automatically pulling content from each of the 21 regional healthcare authority websites in Sweden and publishing it straight to Aftonbladet’s Corona Watch website, all without the use of a human reporter. This means that Aftonbladet are often the first to report on any new COVID-19 cases in the country, which allows the news outlet to give an accurate overview of the current state of the pandemic.
Given the large, global datasets associated with COVID-19, we expect to see new and innovative implementations of AI over the coming months and years to support the multifarious relief effort.
Chemical giant INEOS have successfully built a hand sanitiser plant in the south of France in just ten days. Let that sink in for a minute. Based in the Mediterranean port of Lavera, the new plant is capable of producing 1 million bottles of hand sanitiser each month (over 33,000 every single day) to World Health Organisation specifications. Much of this will go to front line medical and care services, with the rest to be made available for personal use by the wider public. In addition, INEOS are now doubling down by building a second ten-day plant in the town of Étain, north-eastern France, going up as this article goes to press. This will provide hand sanitiser to hospitals in Paris, north-eastern France and Belgium, and bring the total number of INEOS production facilities dedicated to producing this life-saving product to four.
INEOS’ intervention shines a light on the way colossal corporations with deep pockets and extraordinary access to resources can contribute to global crises. Here they have demonstrated an impressive ability to bridge the gap created when the demand for goods surges and traditional supply chains are swamped.
New valves in the Old World (Italy)…
On 13 March 2020, Nunzia Vallini, the editor of a journal in Brescia, Italy, was informed that the local hospital in Brescia urgently needed Venturi valves for ventilators. With massively increased demand, the current valve supplier simply could not keep up. Without suitable valves, lives would be lost. She urgently contacted the founder of FabLab, Massimo Temporelli, a well-known promoter of 3D printing in Italy, who put out a call for assistance throughout Milan and Brescia. The call for help was answered by Cristian Fracassi, the CEO of local company Isinnova. Along with engineer Alessandro Romaioli, they managed to replicate the ventilator valves using a 3D printer, redesigning and producing the missing valve parts within the very same day. All of this despite having no prior experience of ventilators. They teamed up with another local 3D printer company (Lonati) and donated 100 Venturi valves to their local hospital.
A discussion with hospital physicians led them to consider other alternatives to solve the ventilator shortage. Working together with Dr Renato Favero, they developed a 3D printed valve which can be fitted to an existing full-face snorkelling mask, converting it into a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device for patients who are suffering COVID-19. These CPAP devices ensure patients’ lungs are always at least partially inflated to make breathing less laborious. The valves developed by the team provide the link between the air/oxygen supply and the mask, and importantly are also cheap to produce. For the first prototype they worked closely with manufacturers of an existing snorkelling mask, Decathlon. The initial prototypes were tested in hospitals and passed with flying colours. Though Isinnova urgently applied for a patent to protect their valve, they have announced that they will not be charging any royalties for emergency use. By 21 March 2020 (i.e. just 8 days after they were first contacted!) the 3D printing files for the valve were made available to the public (available here).
…and in the New World (USA)
Across the pond, engineers and doctors from Johns Hopkins University (JHU) have responded to the need for more ventilators by developing a 3D-printed splitter that allows a single ventilator to serve multiple patients. Clearly, in situations such as this, when patients are sharing the same ventilator, special care must be taken to ensure that it is safe for all. The main challenge has been to ensure that each patient would get exactly the air that he/she needs. A further challenge has been preventing the potential spread of pathogens from one patient to another. Sung Hoon Kang, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at JHU Whiting School of Engineering is leading a team that includes ICU intensivists and pulmonary specialists from the JHU School of Medicine. According to Kang, the team's new design aims to safeguard against these risks. The new design includes an air-flow controller and flow meters, allowing clinicians to monitor and adjust air flow for each patient. The air volume controller is a key addition because each intubated patient requires different flow control. The team is also adding a filter designed to prevent cross-contamination between patients. Brilliantly, the collaboration at JHU has produced a prototype already, and the University hopes to finalize and start testing the design on model lungs within weeks.
These cases highlight just how quickly people can come together to develop efficient solutions to prominent problems. An idea can spark collaboration between doctors and engineers from a range of different industries, to deliver affordable and innovative products in a short timeframe. These new valves will, no doubt, help under-resourced health services to save many more lives globally in the coming months.
A breath of fresh, Sub-Saharan air
In northern Nigeria, software engineers William Gyang and Nura Jubril have made international headlines by resurrecting faulty ventilators, helping patients suffering from the virus and in intensive care. After visiting the University of Jos Teaching Hospital to procure materials for building new ventilators, the two software engineers were surprised to find that over 40 of the devices the hospital already had, were faulty. Spotting an opportunity to make a real difference, they scoured the manuals and got started. In just a few days, a handful of the devices had been fixed, and work has already begun on the others. All pro bono.
This is a great example of proactive engineers refusing to be limited by the bounds of their professional discipline, using their technical background to contribute to the lives of the most vulnerable.
Necessity is the mother of invention…
It’s inspiring to see that when there is undeniable motivation, the engineering community is able to rise to the challenge and develop solutions fast. In this crisis, we are witnessing possibly unprecedented levels of interaction between engineers and healthcare providers.
One issue with rapidly engineered medical devices is that they are likely to require rigorous testing before being approved for indefinite use. The European Medical Devices Regulation requires all devices used in a medical setting to undergo clinical evaluation, and, as many of the inventions related to COVID-19 will be novel, a significant proportion will also require clinical trials to generate sufficient data for such clinical evaluations. However, some devices, such as ventilators, will be exempt from regulations for the period of this outbreak if there is evidence the device “performs as intended”.
…and necessity is the mother of patents
Accordingly, Kilburn & Strode is experiencing an uptick in the number of new engineering patent applications we are involved with.
The patent system can cater for companies wanting to lend a helping hand by rapidly developing short-term, stop-gap solutions, and also, like Isinnova, wanting to keep their options open to secure future commercial opportunities.
This new wave of patent applications will inevitably have different purposes: for some applicants, protection will be important for both capturing value and keeping the competition at bay; for other applicants, achieving that protection may, in time, no longer be necessary. Whatever their individual destinies, for the public, patent applications and their subsequent publications will still, no doubt, provide a valuable source of information as high-quality patent files are made publicly available for disseminating technical knowledge. This, of course, will underpin further innovation.
The heavy economic impact of this crisis may ultimately deter engineering companies from sinking funds into long-term investments such as research & development (and patenting), with the size of the threat forcing many to prioritise short-term survival. However, in the vein of initiatives such as the UKIPO’s Green Channel (which fast-tracks patent applications with an environmental benefit), widely available patent prosecution acceleration schemes could bring any financial benefits of protecting solutions stemming from the COVID-19 response into the medium-term. This may shift the balance in favour of action for those applicants in the privileged position of being able to look beyond the short-term.
We can all contribute to the campaign against global challenges such as COVID-19 in a variety of ways, whether we’re individuals pushing our boundaries to help those at risk, or huge organisations with the power to impact millions of lives. Hats off to all those included in this article, and, most importantly, thank you. Are you an engineer contributing to the coronavirus relief effort? If so, we’d love to hear from you.
If you would like to contact Marco or Josh, feel free to reach out via email or social media: