NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (Smith College) – SmithVent, a team of 30 Smith College Picker Engineering Program alumni, staff, faculty, and friends, is one of seven global finalists selected in the CoVent-19 Challenge for its ventilator design. SmithVent collaborated virtually to both design and build a ventilator tailored to treatment of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) patients. The result is a simple, cost-effective, rapidly-manufacturable, pneumatic ventilator design informed by healthcare professionals. To help foster innovation, their design files and documentation are available freely online for all to access.
“As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, there were many stories about DIY ventilators that sounded good on the surface, but didn’t have anywhere near the functionality that patients needed,” said Picker Engineering Program professor Susannah Howe, who formed SmithVent in early April to contribute to the COVID-19 amelioration efforts. “I was intrigued by the structured, open-source nature of the CoVent-19 Challenge. Collaborative, applied design is one of the tenets of engineering in our program.” For SmithVent, participation was about more than just designing a safe ventilator: it offered alumni from different class years and different industries the chance to meet and work together. When the call went out, more than 25 Smith alumni from 2006-2020 answered.
Operating as a virtual team, SmithVent team members worked remotely and, often, asynchronously. In the first round of the challenge, this was more feasible as the work was focused on research and design. In the second round, this proved more challenging: the team needed to build a physical prototype. While team members continued to work remotely to refine various aspects of the design, Susannah, Eric Jensen of the Center for Design and Fabrication (CDF), Laura Lillienkamp ’18 of the Design Thinking Initiative, and computer science professor Nicholas Howe assembled and tested the ventilator prototype at the CDF on campus. The four worked diligently on assembly, slowed only slightly by adhering to social-distancing guidelines. Despite working mostly remotely, all team members contributed directly to the prototype’s success. Virtually, team members debugged code, experimented with the electronics and user interface, and built physical mock-ups. Team members even guided system integration and other highly technical tasks through online video-conferencing.
During the challenge, SmithVent focused on the broader context of the project. From early on, team members focused on medical research and engaged healthcare professionals to learn about the unique challenges of COVID-19. The team wanted to ensure its ventilator would help these critical workers. Multiple feedback sessions with respiratory therapists, doctors, and computer science professor R. Jordan Crouser ’08, who specialises in human-computer interaction, informed the design. The team also leaned on the entire Smith engineering community. Before completing its prototype, the SmithVent team held a design review to solicit feedback from current students, alumni, and staff. Just two months after launching the team, SmithVent created a ventilator.
SmithVent team members found the process to be both educational and inspirational. Astrid Landau ’15, co-leader with Susannah, called the challenge “an introduction to remote project management. Learning how to use video calls and technology to utilize expertise and cross time zones showed me the beauty of these incredible collaborations.” All team members volunteered their time on the project, working for no compensation and with no intent to monetize their design. In the same spirit, the team wishes for their efforts to remain open-source and in the public domain. Whether to manufacture a new ventilator to combat COVID-19 or to inform the research and design of ventilators more generally, SmithVent hopes to improve and inform the literature around low-cost, mechanical ventilators. According to Astrid, implementing “even one component of [SmithVent’s] design could help save lives.”
The SmithVent design is a pneumatic ventilator inspired by medical professionals and patients battling COVID-19. It offers gentle air delivery, patient proning if necessary, and liberation from mechanical ventilation to patients through two ventilation modes: volume control and pressure support. Its manufacturing strategy utilizes readily-available, off-the-shelf components to reduce complex machining and support compatibility with current medical equipment. Its enclosure is user-friendly and easy to clean. Its sophisticated control system ensures flexible operator control, monitoring of patient data, and a hierarchy of alarms. The working prototype demonstrates the complete volume control mode and is configured for pressure support. Design files and documentation are available online here.