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6 ways engineers can help fight coronavirus

Joseph Flaig

(Credit: Shutterstock)
(Credit: Shutterstock)

Manufacturers are racing against time to build new ventilators for a predicted surge in the number of coronavirus patients.

Companies from across the engineering spectrum have offered their assistance, and work is under way to build 30,000 devices. But what else can engineers do to help during this national and global crisis?

For some expert suggestions, we asked a group of Professional Engineering readers: “Apart from making ventilators, how could engineers help the fight against coronavirus?”

The answers are hugely encouraging, with many good ideas and willing helpers. They will hopefully provide inspiration for potential volunteers and maybe even guidance for under-pressure officials, who could use this engineering expertise to help minimise the worst of the virus’ impact.

Of course, everyone should follow social distancing and other temporary rules. But with potentially months of restrictions ahead and the possibility of the outbreak stretching on, here are six ways that engineers could help.

Prevent the spread

With numbers of patients skyrocketing, stopping the spread of Covid-19 is an immediate concern. Multiple readers urged engineering companies to design, develop and manufacture more diagnostic kits, as well as improving logistics to distribute them quicker.

Following criticism of the government’s comparatively low level of testing, one member suggested engineers could install “intelligent body temperature detectors at schools, supermarkets, etc”.

Other cutting-edge engineering could help lower infection rates. “Cleaning solutions and material development with inbuilt anti-bacterial properties being developed into our design solutions would be positive,” said Daniel Marsh.

Support the NHS

More hospital spaces are needed for patients as the NHS comes under increasing strain. The ExCel Centre in East London is being co-opted as a field hospital and could reportedly hold up to 4,000 patients. Following similar measures in China, readers suggested engineers could help build new hospitals, including by designing and manufacturing buildings using offsite construction.

Improving Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for NHS staff was a common suggestion. “NHS masks are ‘one size fits all’,” said William Richardson. “To state the obvious, everyone's face is slightly different.”

“Some of it looks quite rudimentary, and some needs very careful fitting to work properly,” said Simon Steven.

Member Caroline Rose suggested improvements could include atmosphere control and filtering, and decontamination. UV decontamination units could reduce waste – and therefore demand – on essential equipment, said one reader.  

With multiple efforts ongoing to develop a vaccine, Paul Russenberger said companies should prepare for increased demand for injection needles.

Spread Stem knowledge

While pupils might have hoped for a break during school closures, teaching is ongoing. This could be a great opportunity to educate and inspire a future generation of engineers, said Dave Hughes.

“Help support education in Stem subjects to take the pressure from teachers, and provide some real-world examples to further engage our student population – of all ages – in what engineering can offer, and hopefully do something that is fun and real while they are learning in a virtual world,” he said.

‘Strengthen home industry’

Other members hoped the crisis will be a wake-up call about over-reliance on foreign imports. “Long term, the UK needs to think about what is manufactured here. Importing all your critical supplies only works if there isn't a crisis,” said Richard Goodfellow.

“My hope is that we can strengthen home industry, leaving us less reliant on foreign imports when we have so many untapped skills and resources in the UK,” said Paul W.

Prevent future outbreaks

While the UK and countries around the world struggle with the current outbreak, several readers urged the industry to look ahead and plan for similar – or even worse – situations.

“We need to use our ingenuity to prevent the problem becoming worse, and avoiding or being prepared for future outbreaks,” said Richard Hulmes.  

Engineers should carry out a full assessment of medical equipment that might be required in similar situations, said Rich Pearson, to ensure that designs can be open-sourced and shared with manufacturers when needed.

Industry itself should have a frank appraisal of its international activity to help prevent a repeat of this pandemic, said Paul Thurgood. Companies and employees might need to act differently in future.

“Hopefully this will be a wake-up call in many ways. This is an aggressive virus, but it could be that in future another one will show itself much more slowly, infecting many more people and with much more serious effects. Many of us engage far too much in international travel, with little regard for global warming. The virus is here in the UK solely because of this travel.”

Run the country  

For Justin Greenhalgh, the best way engineers could help is simple: “By being put in charge of the country and making long-term decisions!”

Others suggested practical ways of helping the government, including giving guidance on statistical modelling and risk assessment, managing supply chains and assisting planning.

“Whole-system thinking is something that is often lacking in central government – partly because it can be really hard,” said Grant Tuff. “Engineers can help with this, in terms of understanding the implications of different options and choices for handling many aspects of the current situation.”

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 


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