Fighting the War
Feeling called to join the attack against coronavirus, engineers deployed their characteristic ingenuity.
By Henry Petroski
Health care workers are rightly celebrated as true heroes in the war against COVID-19. They have served bravely on the front lines, tending to the wounded and dying.
Other professionals—epidemiologists, data analysts, computer modelers, medical scientists—have also been part of the war effort. Working on the home front, they have been tracking the enemy and developing weapons of defense, including the ultimate one—a vaccine.
Engineers have also played a key role. Early on, it became clear that the mechanical breathing-assist devices known as ventilators were in short supply. Hospitals couldn’t obtain enough of the sophisticated machines, even at the inflated prices commanded by the pressing demand. Engineers in universities, laboratories, and garages across the country set aside less urgent projects to generate solutions.
As engineers saw the problem: conceive, design, and build a simple, inexpensive, and reliable ventilator out of commonplace parts, and do so quickly. The use of readily available components was critical, since the pandemic was disrupting supply chains. It was also important to keep costs down, because the postponement of elective medical procedures had reduced hospital revenue. The problem was not unlike one that might have been posed to students in an engineering design course.
One of the various approaches came from Virgin Orbit, the California-based maker of air-launched rockets. A group of its engineers reassigned to work on ventilators developed the idea of achieving the repetitive action of breathing by using a stock part: windshield-wiper motors from 2010 Toyota Camrys.
At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a team set itself the challenge of designing a ventilator that, given all the needed parts and a limited number of tools, one person could assemble in 45 minutes. Among the JPL designs was one that employed as a power source the gas supply available in virtually every hospital room.
Several other design and development teams employed the rubberized ventilation bag used in manually operated resuscitators, but in a device that compressed it automatically. Aaron Tucker, a mechanical engineering doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, led a group that teamed up with Boston Scientific to make a mass-produced ventilator that used only about $150 worth of parts and received FDA authorization for manufacturing in April. Engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, also adapted an existing medical device in their ventilator design. The idea to use a sleep apnea machine originated with an alumnus. He had contacted the dean of engineering, who in turn put him in contact with associate professor Grace O’Connell, who teaches Designing for the Human Body. She assembled a team of student volunteers, whose early designs were improved through consultation with area medical experts.
In the meantime, Ford and General Electric partnered, employing existing designs to make tens of thousands of ventilators. This took the wind out of the sails of some of the smaller-scale inventors and developers. However, many of them had all along conceived of their devices as not only stopgaps for the U.S. emergency but also appropriate technology for developing countries in which COVID-19 was taking hold. The Berkeley group, for example, had been planning to send about 600 of their sleep apnea ventilators to Ecuador, where they were badly needed.
It is rewarding and reassuring to know that the problems and projects that engineering students are assigned, in courses ranging from first-year design laboratories to senior capstone experiences, can indeed reflect real-world circumstances—such as the ongoing war on the coronavirus. And we can take pride in the fact that engineers are ready and willing to serve.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University.
Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski