We all know that it is impossible to open a news application or email these days without hearing about COVID-19. Unfortunately, the news is a constant stream of grim, depressing and often conflicting facts that can easily take the wind out of any readers sails if they aren’t careful. I think engineers in particular struggle because our brains want to solve problems and many of us reading this are software or hardware engineers which makes biological problem solving outside our area of expertise. This doesn’t mean that our skillsets and knowledge can’t be applied to this crisis. In fact, as I’ve been browsing the web looking for uplifting and inspiring engineering stories, I’ve found five interesting projects that show just how creative engineers can be at solving the various challenges that we now face.
Project #1 – Open Source Ventilator Projects
As we all know by now, ventilators are an important tool to help patients who are struggling to breath on their own. Modern ventilators are fairly sophisticated devices especially from a software standpoint, but at their heart, they are relatively simple mechanical devices. While there are several modes these devices can operate in, their end goal is to deliver a given amount of air to the patient and attempt to generate an ideal pressure and airflow curve. For a pandemic ventilator, the software required to generate these curves, measure airflow and oxygen can be done in less than 5,000 lines of code.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve heard of several companies manufacturing ventilators who normally don’t. I’ve also heard from several companies working on pandemic ventilators and open source ventilator projects. One such project that I’ve heard about is The Ventilator Project, which is based in Boston. They currently have over 200 volunteers which have completely designed and prototyped a ventilator that avoids supply chain constraints that are typically found within the medical industry. As a non-profit, they are also aiming to sell their ventilator between $1,000 - $2,000 which is significantly lower than a typical modern ventilator that has all the normal bells and whistles.
There is a lot of activity in the ventilator space right now as companies and individuals lend their expertise to cover the world’s shortage.
Project #2 – 3D Printed Masks
While I was attending church last Sunday online and the pastor was sharing what the church was doing in Michigan to help support those in our area that are being affected by the outbreak, I was surprised to learn that there was a local gentlemen who was using his 3D printer to print N95 quality masks. I was vaguely aware of local companies that manufacture masks and that the filter for them is a thin plastic but the articles I had previously read made it sound like the investment to produce masks and the ramp up times are incredibly long. I never thought of creating the entire mask out of plastic (hey, I’m a software guy so I try my best to keep my blinders on software innovations … ). What was fascinating is that with a home-based 3D printer he was on pace to produce 1,000 masks per month if my understanding is correct (it may have been a total).
|Dozens of these mask designs can help healthcare workers. (Image Source: Copper 3D)|
As I started to scour the web for examples, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there isn’t just a single 3D printed mask design out there but instead dozens! Designs are coming from makers, businesses and even out of the university environment! Below are a few highlights of interesting examples and articles that I’ve come across so far:
Project #3 – 3D Printed Face Shields
A major challenge facing health care workers is a shortage of personal protection equipment like masks and face shields. When I learned that you could 3D print a mask, I wondered what else could be printed and it was a short skip and hop to discover that people are also printing face shields. Face shields can protect health care workers by keeping any virus particles that are hitching a ride on droplets in the air from landing on their faces or in their eyes.
You don’t have to create your own design. They're available online. (Image Source: Prusa Research)
Once again, you don’t have to look far to find innovative designs. For example, Prusa Research has complete design files and even assembly videos hosted on their website. There is even an online community where you can ask questions if you run into any problems or issues.
Project #4 – Online Learning for Embedded Engineers
An area that is near and dear to my heart is education. As a consultant, I am often involved in advising, coaching and teaching companies and individuals on how to successfully develop embedded systems. I’m convinced that right now, while we are all working from home, there is an opportunity for us to enhance our development skills in order to improve efficiency, decrease bugs and build higher quality products.
If we look seriously at our industry, in-person conferences for this year are either going to be non-existent or they are going to be extremely light in attendance. I’ve started to see companies move to a more online strategy. For example, every August Microchip holds their Masters Conference. This year, Microchip is holding an eMasters Conference which will be done completely online.
While social distancing, it may feel like the only thing to do is watch television and just wait for this crisis to pass us by as the news continues to provide us with grim news. However, I hope that these project examples demonstrate how engineers and businesses are still innovating and helping to provide short-term solutions. The world at the moment has been tipped upside down, but I’m convinced that there is something every one of us can do, even if it is as simple as donating to a cause, printing a few masks, social distancing or even giving a neighbor a roll of toilet paper (sorry I couldn’t find any examples on how to 3D print toilet paper).
Take some time today or this week to think about how you can contribute and then do it! (Feel free to provide your ideas and thoughts below. I’m sure there are so many more projects that are flying under the radar and could use some visibility!)
Jacob Beningo is an embedded software consultant who currently works with clients in more than a dozen countries to dramatically transform their businesses by improving product quality, cost and time to market. He has published more than 200 articles on embedded software development techniques, is a sought-after speaker and technical trainer, and holds three degrees which include a Masters of Engineering from the University of Michigan. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, at his website, and sign-up for his monthly Embedded Bytes Newsletter.