Covid-19 has launched many global engineering groups on projects that aim to reduce the impact of the pandemic.
Among those that target healthcare, one of the most successful has been the UCL-Ventura, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) non-invasive breathing aid for hospital patients. At the time of writing, more than 1,100 units had been manufactured and delivered to 46 hospitals across the UK, and deliveries continue.
The Ventura project combines elements that show how this kind of device is best realized in an emergency. Those include skill clustering, product selection, rapid prototyping, data management, and – particularly important for a medical device – close alignment with the needs of regulators.
The project was primarily a collaboration between the Mechanical Engineering department and the Institute of Healthcare Engineering at University College London (UCL), University College London Hospitals (UCLH) and Mercedes-AMG High-Performance Powertrains. Other partners include Oxford Optronix, which provides oxygen monitors for the CPAP device, and Mushroom, an online data management software suite developed by UCL alumni.
Leveraging the social and physical infrastructure, Ventura’s collaborators were able to move very quickly. The first step on the engineering side was taken at a meeting between UCL’s Professor Tim Baker and two long-standing Mercedes contacts, Andy Cowell and Ben Hodgkinson, on 18 March. Baker outlined that he had been alerted to the need for CPAP aids by colleagues from UCLH.
Design and specification were thus concentrated at a single site and conducted on a rapid prototyping basis before moving into volume manufacture.
A CPAP system pushes a mixture of air and oxygen into the patient’s nose and masks at a continuous rate via a medical mask. A CPAP thus uses positive pressure based on the Venturi effect to keep airways open. Mechanical valves allow medical staff to adjust the pressure level and the air/oxygen mix as appropriate. However, unlike a ventilator, a CPAP has no autonomous moving parts.
This regulatory issue is one that is arguably being overlooked in the sometimes inpatient coverage of how Covid-19 projects are (or are not) coming to fruition. These are medical devices that must satisfy the tightest specifications, and there are only so many people capable of making sure that is the case.
The Ventura design is now available to qualified groups worldwide under an open-source license (appropriate because this really is the antithesis of a DIY project), and has already gone through a series of revisions and refinements.