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FEATURE: How augmented reality and 3D printing are leading the charge for more coronavirus ventilators

Joseph Flaig

Stock image. The Ventilator Challenge is using the Microsoft HoloLens and PTC software to transfer vital knowledge about ventilator manufacture (Credit: Shutterstock)
Stock image. The Ventilator Challenge is using the Microsoft HoloLens and PTC software to transfer vital knowledge about ventilator manufacture (Credit: Shutterstock)

The world is in a race against time.

As the number of coronavirus cases continues to skyrocket, the effort to save lives has focused around a vital technology – ventilators and breathing equipment to give patients air, oxygenate their blood and supply medicines.

Engineering and manufacturing firms are responding quickly and enthusiastically. Name pretty much any firm from across industry and they are likely to be involved – Airbus, Dyson, Ford, Tesla, BAE-Systems, JCB and Protolabs are just some of the companies lending their assistance.

With time of the essence, it is the perfect opportunity for firms to use their expertise in advanced engineering and manufacturing techniques to rapidly meet demand. Here is how three technologies are leading the charge.

Augmented reality

The Ventilator Challenge is one of the most prominent and promising projects in the UK, with government orders for more than 10,000 Rapidly Manufactured Ventilator Systems (RMVS). Augmented reality is playing a key role in the huge consortium of engineering and technology firms and Formula 1 teams.

The project is using PTC’s Vuforia Expert Capture AR technology and Microsoft’s HoloLens to capture the crucial assembly steps and processes involved in the assembly and build of RMVS at Smiths Group and Penlon, which already build the devices. According to a PTC blog, the captured video and data is uploaded and edited in the Vuforia Editor and then relayed through wearable equipment to factory workers at Ford, Rolls-Royce, Airbus, GKN, Thales, BAE Systems, McLaren, Meggitt and Renishaw.

The method quickly teaches teams who are unfamiliar with RMVS manufacture the correct steps, helping them adapt production lines. By doing so, the consortium hopes to reduce lead times – and avoid potential transmission of Covid-19 between workers, who would otherwise need to physically visit factories to efficiently share knowledge.

“If ever time was of the essence, it is now,” says the PTC blog. “AR is a critical technology that will make it possible to meet this unprecedented challenge of quickly ramping up diverse industrial manufacturers to produce medical devices in their factories.”

The rush for ventilators is a perfect application for AR, says Dr Helen Meese, IMechE trustee and founder of The Care Machine. “We have gotten used to the way of working in shared documents,” she says to Professional Engineering. “Really the next step along is AR and these sorts of things. It sounds like they have latched onto a really good use for the technology. I think there is probably more to come from that.”

3D printing

With so many companies around the world trying to rapidly meet complex and varied demands, 3D printing is another technology coming to the fore.

Protolabs’ European headquarters in Telford, Shropshire, for example, is printing valves that are being used by Isinnova in Italy to convert snorkelling equipment into non-invasive ventilator masks.  

The company used HP multi-jet fusion to build the parts, says Philipp Amend, Protolabs manager of process engineering and technical services. The ‘Charlotte’ valves are made of polyamide 12 powder, which can be sterilised to a medical grade – a basic requirement for the project. Doctors at the hospital receiving the masks also needed the valves to be reliable, says Amend, and speed was key.  

“We printed hundreds of 3D-printed parts in three days for the hospital,” he says to Professional Engineering. “You can print on demand and help these hospitals get these parts and help them to fight the coronavirus crisis.”

The valve design could also be adapted for injection moulding for faster production, says Amend.

Crucially, the devices have not yet been medically certified yet, but they are available for emergency use.

“That sort of technology really is perfect for this sort of situation,” says Dr Meese. “We’re talking about parts that are outside the human body, so they don’t necessarily need to go through such strict trialling… it’s perfect, and the nice thing is you can quickly manufacture them in different ways to suit different patients or conditions.”

Reverse engineering

One device already approved for use by the NHS is a breathing aid adapted by mechanical engineers at University College London, clinicians at the UCLH university hospital trust and Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains. The device, known as Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), has been used extensively in hospitals in Italy and China to help Covid-19 patients with serious lung infections to breathe more easily, when oxygen alone is insufficient.

The team took fewer than 100 hours to go from the first meeting to production of the first device, and 100 are being delivered to UCLH for clinical trials ahead of rapid deployment to hospitals around the country. The speed of the project was enabled by reverse engineering.

“Given the urgent need, we are thankful that we were able to reduce a process that could take years down to a matter of days,” said Professor Tim Baker at UCL.

“From being given the brief, we worked all hours of the day, disassembling and analysing an off-patent device. Using computer simulations, we improved the device further to create a state-of-the-art version suited to mass production.”

Reverse engineering is ideal for projects like this, says Dr Meese to Professional Engineering. “Where it comes to the fore, really, is in situations like this where you have to quickly adapt to rapidly changing situations – being able to understand the need and then be able to look at the specification and how you’re going to apply that to the need.”


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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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