Ventilator Makers: The Plan C Team

According to last night’s Vent-Con 2020 conference, about 10,000 people worldwide are trying to build ventilators to help solve the anticipated shortage due to COVID19. Highly qualified speakers from various countries shared a panel to showcase their projects, discuss design considerations and help get teams from “workbench to deployment”. I was interested in all these discussions because I built a very basic ventilator prototype in my workshop during South Africa’s lockdown. My daughter Juliet also sewed 100 face masks which were distributed by Gift of the Givers. The 73,000 member Facebook group, Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies, shares and tracks these types of contributions across 49 different countries. Nearly 6 million units of medical supplies have been made, mostly in people’s homes during lockdowns around the world. Kitchens, lounges and garages have been repurposed, 3d printers run all night, home-based production lines have been set up, its truly a war-time effort.

We’ve all seen these initiatives in our communities and Whatsapp groups. Making sandwiches, raising money, clapping for medical workers and countless other projects are all making a difference during this crisis. In my experience of the open source medical supplies community I’ve seen the very best of this human spirit and I’ve been truly amazed at the ingenuity of some of the solutions. There are over 100 open-source ventilator projects around the world, ranging from factory-ready designs to emergency versions that could be made at home. A team at the University of Calgary in Canada is building an Emergency Pandemic Ventilator using a jacket-type patient chamber and electronically controlled valves to control respiratory cycles. Alec Smyth of Virginia, USA built a “wooden lung” in his garage which uses the principle of negative pressure around a patient’s lungs. He made a full size, wooden patient chamber that was connected to the suction and blowing vents of a vacuum cleaner through a rotary valve. As the valve turns, it creates alternating cycles of pressure in the chamber, which he demonstrates as a patient himself in this video.

During the 1950s polio outbreak, a ventilator called an “iron lung” was developed. The patient lies down inside it with just their head exposed and a regulated cycle of air pressure helps them breathe. A modern version called the exovent is currently being tested at hospitals in the UK by the NHS. After chatting to Alec and doing some research, I decided to try and build one which I eventually entered into the #ZAVentilatorChallenge being run by DIY Electronics and Makers With Purpose. The primary goal of my Emergency Wooden Ventilator was to test a design that can be built locally with materials in most homes or that are easy to purchase. As such it is not a medical device, but would only be used in emergencies, and if there was simply no other option to keep a person alive. I used a vacuum cleaner, plastic box, small motor, plywood and other household / workshop items. The difficult part was the rotary valve, which like Alec Smyth, I built from a 1949 Popular Science magazine article and just added a small motor. I also built a home made manometer to measure the air pressure in the chamber and Juliet did a science project by measuring the change in pressure when she opened and closed holes in the suction pipe.

I’ve been inspired by all the talented and resilient makers and inventors in this crisis who simply try and try again until something works. This fail-fast principle has been used by inventors from Thomas Edison to Elon Musk, who only see failure as a stepping stone to success. Such continuous learning and experimentation is a principle of Agile software development, in which teams do short, iterative work cycles, always evaluating and improving. Exponential businesses have been founded on the “Build Measure Learn” principle, as Eric Ries calls it in his book, The Lean Startup. Mistakes are welcomed in a team culture of openness and trust because it means one less product defect for the customer. For medical supplies that might need to be rushed to market, this could mean the difference between life and death, even a steep or flattened curve. ICU ventilators are sophisticated machines with stringent medical approval standards that have highly regulated and established supply chains. According to one of the speakers at Vent-Con, in this worldwide supply chain the government is Plan A, industry is Plan B, while the maker community is Plan C. It depends how desperate we get in this crisis, but if we need the Plan C team, I have seen the incredible work they do and I am proud that our family has been part of this global movement.

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