What we can do to help fight COVID-19

Article By : Lee Goldberg

Since technologists have problem-solving written in our DNA, here are some ways we can give medical professionals and first responders the tools they need to save lives, and stay safe.

Since technologists have problem-solving written in our DNA, many of us are discovering that the toughest part of the COVID-19 epidemic is passively sheltering in place, while others put themselves in harm’s way. While not all of us are as brave or as heroic as the medical professionals and first responders, we can give them the tools they need to save more lives, and stay safe while they do it. Engineers, technical professionals, and members of the maker community can step up and join one of the volunteer initiatives to develop and manufacture the things desperately needed by the folks on the front lines.

Remember: No matter what your skill or skill level, there’s a way you can help.

Techies vs. the epidemic

Most of the projects underway use the proven frameworks and tools used by many other open-source hardware and software development efforts. Their outputs can be as simple as plans for fabric medical masks and 3D-printed face shields that can be sewn or printed at home and donated through various service organizations. Still others are harnessing the collective skills of design engineers from all disciplines to help create open-source designs for ventilatorsoxygen concentrators, and other medical equipment that can be manufactured quickly and inexpensively.

The number of initiatives is growing so quickly that no single article can list them all. Instead, I’ve tried to prepare a rough roadmap to give you a feel for this hopeful new territory, and to point out some of the important projects, and reference sources that guide them. As my other duties permit, I’ll try to update this as significant new developments arise.

Open source leads the way

Most of the earliest responses to the shortages were open-source plans for protective gear that could stand in for the rapidly dwindling stockpiles of commercial equipment. As a result, there are now literally dozens of plans available for protective fabric masks and scrub hats that can be easily produced by nearly anyone with a sewing machine and some time on their hands.

There have also been some more ambitious projects, such as Prusa’s 3D printable face shield, designed in conjunction with the Czech Ministry of Health to provide a second layer of protection to healthcare providers working in close proximity of their patients. The shield’s two rigid components can be printed on nearly any commercial- or consumer-grade FDM-style (fused deposition modeling) 3D printer. Similarly, there are several sets of open-source plans, CAD, and STL files available for N95 masks that can be constructed largely out of 3D printed components.

Prusa Labs face shieldMakerBot N95 maskThe 3D printing community has responded quickly to the COVID-19 outbreak, teaming with medical authorities to develop professional-grade protective gear that could be printed on consumer machines in as little as two weeks. Source: Prusa and Thingiverse/Gregory Harding.

All these items are being collected for distribution by many civic organizations, as well as at least one chain of fabric stores. (Note: There will be additional information on available designs and distribution networks at the end of this article.)

There has been a lot of activity further up the food chain, with several well-coordinated efforts to develop open-source designs for more complex equipment, such as the ventilators needed to keep patients suffering respiratory failure alive. Teams of volunteers, such as Open Source Ventilator (OSV) Ireland, have been able to create designs for the machines’ electronic, electromechanical, and mechanical components that rely as much as possible on off-the-shelf and 3D-printed components.

Some designs are already finished being tested for certification and production, while others are still under development. In either case, your design and engineering skills can help accelerate the efforts of the projects listed below.

Calling all designers

If you’re looking to get involved with an open-source project at the design level, you should spend some time on the Open Source COVID 19 Medical Supplies (OSCMS) website. It contains an extensive library of open-source designs for PPE (face masks, face shields, and powered respirators) and medical supplies, such as nasal cannulasnasal catheters, and flow splitters for oxygen supplies that have been carefully reviewed for safety and effectiveness.

Perhaps more important than the designs themselves, OSCMS provides a thorough introduction to the types of products needed at the front lines, as well as a detailed breakdown of what it takes to design and manufacture products suitable for medical use. After you’ve educated yourself a bit, fill out the OSCMS registration form with your contact information, skills, and interests, and then spend some time on the group’s Facebook page to get a feel for what’s going on. Many citizens’ medical initiatives use the site as a digital commons to exchange information and as a rallying point for recruiting volunteers.

The OSV Ireland project is one of the most notable spawned by the OSCMS. It was created by Colin Keogh as the result of his discussions with other members of the OSCMS Facebook group. Keogh, and his core team of 20+ volunteer engineers, designers, and medical practitioners, are currently working collaboratively online to develop a number of new, low-resource COVID-19 related medical supplies.

The group’s most visible project is a field emergency ventilator (FEV) system, intended to be a simple, reliable, safe, and easy-to-use device that uses a bag valve mask (BVM) and consists mostly of 3D-printed parts. This is an emergency field tool that can be relatively easily mass produced with certified components and rapidly deployed by general care workers on the front-line fight against COVID-19. Their first ventilator prototype was designed and produced in just seven days, after the project’s first public presence on Facebook. Since then, it’s attracted participation from over 300 engineers, medical professionals, and researchers.

open source ventilatorThis is an Open Source Ventilator early prototype. Source: OSV Ireland.

The work done by OSV and other groups of volunteers will have positive effects that last far longer than the crisis that sparked their creation. Even after this epidemic passes, these devices will be invaluable as low-cost tools for emergency responders and for enabling healthcare providers to provide life-sustaining services in parts of the world where they are currently unaffordable.

OSV and its volunteers are also close to prototyping a number of other lifesaving medical devices, including a simplified and improved version of a low-cost BVM or Ambu-bag emergency respirator, originally developed in a collaboration between MIT and Rice University engineering students.

The OSV team is currently inviting additional designers, engineers, and medical professionals from any area of specialization to consider volunteering. As Keogh, OSV’s founder, says, “It doesn’t matter where you are, it doesn’t matter what your skillset is, what time zone you’re in, if you can contribute in a group to these large scale projects, you can have very high-impact results in a very short amount of time.” If you’re interested, the first step is to register at the OSV website and learn more about what’s involved.

There is also a design for an open-source oxygen concentrator under development at the RepRap forum. The project’s founder, Adrian Bowyer, is working on a design for a machine that uses the same pressure swing adsorption process as its commercial brethren that can be built inexpensively from off-the-shelf components and open-source 3D-printed parts.

Bowyer is looking for volunteers to test the current design and others to make refinements based on the results. He envisions the next steps as producing a variant of the design for use by healthcare services in emerging economies and another one for hospitals and clinics in developed economies.

What makers can do

If you can’t get involved at the design level, you, or your company, can help by making the masks, gowns, PPG, and other medical supplies that are critically scarce in many parts of the country. While many of these items are 3D printed, there are designs for fabric masks, gowns, and even biohazard suits that can be sewn by anyone with basic skills.

MakerHub, for example, has launched a well-organized program to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Powered by its users, they are building a network that connects medical centers around the United States in need of masks, face shields, and other PPE, with 3D printing enthusiasts, sewing hobbyists, molding professionals, and designers who can produce them. Hospitals and healthcare centers are invited to register with MakerHub and select the PPE they need from the small but carefully-vetted library of sewn and 3D-printed items, or request a design of their own. Makers with printing or sewing skills, and manufacturers who would like to volunteer some of their capacity can also register and be paired with an organization in need of their abilities.

MakerHub isolation suitMakerHub’s library of open-source PPE includes a working isolation suit made from Tyvek 1433R or a similar material that can be sewn on nearly any machine. Source: MakerHub

If you already know of a hospital, clinic, or other healthcare provider in need of supplies, the previously-mentioned OSCMS is a great source of plans, patterns, parts lists, and STL files for a surprisingly wide range of medical supplies that can be manufactured, printed, or hand-crafted quickly and inexpensively. They also have an extensive set of resources for designing and building medical-grade products.

Many companies and individuals within the 3D-printing industry are also joining the fight, producing much-needed supplies and offering up their designs for others. When Formlabs learned that the nasal swabs used in COVID-19 test kits are in short supply, they quickly developed plans for a medical-grade nasal swab that can be printed on most stereolithographic 3D printers. Beside producing the swabs themselves, they’ve released the files and safety guidelines for the swabs for public use on their website. There is also full documentation for a printable air splitter that allows two patients to share a ventilator, and several other printable items available for download.

FormLabs swabs and ventilator splittersFormlabs developed open-source 3D-printed nasal swabs and ventilator splitters. Source: Formlabs

There are so many COVID-19-related activities going on within the 3D-printing community that TCT Magazine has created a live blog that’s updated daily. It’s a great place to keep track of the latest open-source medical designs as they become available. 3DPrint.com is also on the scene, and has created a very informative series on the industry’s response to COVID-19.

From sheltered in place to active in place

Even if you’ve got limited or non-existent design skills, and no access to a 3D printer, you can join the legions of ordinary folks making simple, but effective masks, caps, and other fabric-based PPE for use locally or wider distribution. Since literally dozens of open-source mask designs have sprung up in the last two weeks, choosing the right one can be confusing. A good place to start would be the OSCMS group’s excellent collection of mask designs that have been reviewed by medical professionals. You can also consider the physician-approved design created by MakerMask.

If you live near a JoAnn fabric shop, perhaps the best thing to do is get involved with their national project to make 100 million masks and distribute them to wherever they are needed. You can make masks using their plans from nearly any cotton cloth or from their take-away kits, which contain materials for five masks. All materials can be picked up curbside and the completed masks can be dropped off in a similar manner, without having to enter the store. There have been reports that the chain is offering discounts for mask materials, and possibly even giving away certain quantities, but I could not verify them at the time of this writing.

On a personal note, my wife and I have been using one of JoAnn’s approved designs for the past week or so. It’s slightly more complicated than some others, but it fits well on most faces, does not require hard-to-find elastic straps, and has a pocket where the user can add a disposable filter made of nonwoven fabric that provides additional protection. Learn more about the plans and updates on our modest enterprise here.

Stay safe, stay kind, and have faith in each other and our power to make a positive difference.

— Lee Goldberg is a self-identified “recovering engineer,” who has worked designing microprocessors and embedded systems, and is now a maker/hacker, a geek dad, and a tech journalist.

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