When the coronavirus pandemic first began shutting down businesses and workplaces in Australia this past March, the University of Sydney told Professor Gregg Suaning that he was not among the workers the university needed to continue coming to campus.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow. After all this time and being an engineer, I haven’t made myself essential yet’,” Suaning told create. “I was kind of disappointed about that.”
But the head of the university’s School of Biomedical Engineering soon found a way to change that, thanks to an unexpected call from NSW Health.
At this time, diagnoses of COVID-19 in New South Wales were climbing at an alarming rate and the state’s health system was concerned about its capacity to treat the looming influx of patients. In particular, the state needed ventilators.
“It looked like by Anzac Day that the entire hospital system of New South Wales would be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients,” Suaning said.
“So we got to work and 17 days later, we had a working ventilator.”
Named the CoVida, Suaning’s technology is the result of a collaboration between the university, clinicians at Westmead, Nepean and Royal North Shore hospitals, and some creative and enthusiastic students.
Designed to be low-cost and easy to produce, the ventilator was based on an emergency device manufactured 20 years ago by instrument company Ulco, located in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville.
“It used to be used in helicopters to rescue people. If they were in a bad way, they could be ventilated on the helicopter. It was battery operated,” Suaning explained.
“But then we started digging into it, and it would have been perfectly acceptable and quite a good product in the nineties. But standards have gone way, way, way up ever since then.”
Fortunately, the manufacturing process has also changed since the 1990s. Suaning could draw on 3D-printing and other advanced manufacturing techniques — and the expertise of his students.
“I’m in my fifties, and I studied many years ago and knew about CAD programs and things like that. But students these days know an awful lot more than I do about 3D printing and new-age type of manufacturing,” Suaning said.
“They would model it in a CAD file and then they would go and 3D-print it. So, sometimes within hours, we’d be able to build something and test to see if all the dimensions were correct before we sent it out to be manufactured in aluminium or plastic at a machine shop.”
Suaning described the difference that made in the development process as “mind-boggling”.
“I think 10 years ago, before 3D-printing and things like that, 17 days to go from a concept to a fully functional prototype would just be unheard of,” he said.
“But with 3D-printing, you just printed the things that you needed … Things from knobs, to boxes, to the handles that hold the thing together. It was just all done with advanced manufacturing.”
Raising the standard
But creating a working device and having technology ready to roll out to hospitals are different questions, and the team’s work needed to pass stringent regulations before it could be put into use.
“It wasn’t enough to pass the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s minimum requirements for an emergency ventilator,” Suaning said of the original prototype.
Most of the team’s work since has been to ensure the ventilator could measure up to these high standards of safety and accuracy required by the regulator. During that time, New South Wales was able to flatten the curve and reduce the number of COVID-19 infections to a much more manageable number.
But that did not mean the work on CoVida has been wasted; there are still high rates of infection in Victoria, and Suaning has hopes that his technology can be used in other countries where the virus is still proliferating. And considering that different countries have a diverse variety of regulations ensuring the safety of medical equipment, that time spent raising the standards of this device has not been wasted.
The team also wanted to ensure the device was as simple to use as possible.
“The user interface is really basic; we intentionally did that,” Suaning said.
“We’ve been having this mantra that says, ‘If it doesn’t work at 3 am, on a tired person that’s working on the ward, then it’s not good enough’.”
With the technical challenges bedded down, the ventilator is ready to be manufactured in numbers as large as necessary.
“I think we’re limited only by the supply chain,” Suaning said.
“We built five of them in two days, and that’s with a handful of people. And if we duplicated the tables and the devices that we were building in another facility or a larger facility and doubled the number of people, then we could double the production. So I don’t think there’s a real upper limit to how many you could build.”