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UJ designs open source, cheap ventilators to fight COVID-19

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 29 Apr 2020

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) has created open source, cheap ventilators to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Africa has recorded 4 996 confirmed cases, 2 073 recoveries and 93 deaths to the coronavirus, to date.

The university believes it may have the solution to help curb the effects of the devastating virus.

UJ says it has taken a three-pronged approach towards support for critical care technology development in response to the COVID-19 crisis, which is expected to peak between July and September locally.

The team at UJ is now inviting industry partners, researchers and practitioners in the clinical technical services sector to join forces to fast-track research and prototype development, and support critical maintenance activities to ensure the project can be scaled and replicated on the continent.

In a statement, UJ says a multidisciplinary team of engineers and healthcare practitioners are coordinating efforts to further develop open source ventilators, support repair and maintenance efforts to bring out of warranty equipment into service, and make rapid prototyping facilities available to enable personal protective equipment manufacturing.

The team, led by UJ’s Dr Deon Sabatta and Dr Samson Masebinu, identified several simple, safe and scalable open source designs that could meet the strict specifications for use with patients if further developed and tested.

“By building on open source designs, the team has developed a minimal viable product with elements that can be produced through 3D printing and laser-cutting techniques. These designs will support the development of the critical control systems that protect a patient supported by a ventilator,” says the university.

Sabatta explains further: “Ventilators are complex medical devices, and it is more intricate than simply squeezing a bag. Our product includes devices such as pressure sensors, flow sensors and a number of control algorithms.

“It can, therefore, be set up to perform more advanced ventilation tasks such as pressure support ventilation or synchronous intermittent mandatory ventilation. This is a step up in ventilation support by being able to assist patients further when they are tiring from being on continuous positive airway pressure systems for extended periods of time.”

According to the university, the UJ Process Energy and Environmental Technology Station is supporting efforts to identify decommissioned ventilators at public and private hospitals to bring out-of-service equipment back online, “focusing their efforts on e-waste reduction in a circular economy to support the medical engineering maintenance programmes at hospitals”.

Masebinu elaborates: “Through our repair and maintenance undertaking, this assignment will build on the principles of circularity and create employment opportunities since there are large amounts of equipment that can be repaired and calibrated for re-use, especially beyond our borders in South Africa. There is no sector more critical at this moment than healthcare, which is why we are proud to play a role in helping to produce and revamp these critical life-saving devices.”

Concurrently, multi-channel provider of industrial and electronic products and solutions, RS Components, says 3D printing is proving to be useful in the fight against COVID-19.

The company says with the COVID-19 outbreak snowballing its way across the globe, medical supplies such as facemasks, respirators and ventilators have become scarce and this shortage has prompted action by the 3D printing community.

Brian Andrew, MD of RS Components in Sub-Saharan Africa, says 3D printing is helping people to think ‘out of the box’ and share their designs free of charge in the hope it will help lower the infection rate.

“When commercial 3D printing first made its way on the scene, it was expensive and only a few individuals saw the potential of owning a 3D printer. With advances in the design of these devices, 3D printers have become far more affordable, making this technology highly accessible. The 3D printing phenomena has infiltrated almost every industry, assisting in conceptualising, prototyping as well as small batch production of parts and components,” he says.

SA has since made inroads in 3D printing technology.

Over 300 3D printing technology systems and designs have been established locally as a result of programmes put in place by government, academic institutions and industry players.

According to the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), this collaborative approach has made it possible to establish and develop an infrastructure base that allows for meaningful research.

The DSI says significant investment in the sector has seen SA demonstrate world-class capabilities in 3D technology, which has positioned the country to participate in sub-sectors with high growth potential, such as aerospace applications, and medical and dental devices.