Low-cost, 3D-printed mechanical ventilators are being designed and built at Simon Fraser University in Canada, in answer to the potential need for future resources as the fight against COVID-19 continues. 

“As an engineer, this is how I can help the community respond to COVID-19,” says Woo Soo Kim, a School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering associate professor, who is leading the project from his lab based at SFU’s Surrey campus. As we brace for a potential second wave of the pandemic, Kim says a portable ventilator could be a viable solution to support patients. The 3D-printed ventilators would cost less than $600 and could be used outside hospital settings, such as long-term care homes.

The portable mechanical ventilator would assist a person’s breathing by contracting a 3D-printed origami tube, instead of compressing a conventional bag-valve mask (BVM). The changes in design allow Kim’s ventilator to be much smaller and portable.

Kim was inspired by the Fabrication City concept, which puts manufacturing back in the hands of the community by helping individuals and groups to re-use resources and develop and market sustainable, local products.  

“I could see how this concept might extend to the medical equipment and portable ventilators needed during the initial stage of COVID-19 and was motivated to create this team-based project with local experts,” he explains. “We may need to build these to serve our community’s needs for required medical equipment in the near future.”

Once the prototype is completed, the portable ventilator will be evaluated by a focus group that includes respiratory therapists at Vancouver Coastal Health. 

“This research responds to the global demand of portable ventilators related to COVID-19 pandemic,” says Lillian Hung, clinical nurse specialist at Vancouver Coastal Health. “I am excited to engage VGH clinicians (respiratory therapists, nurses and physicians) to provide input and feedback into the development of this new design of ventilator to ensure the product will be effective and efficient for use. The collaboration between science and health care is a win-win for patients.”

The project is a partnership with Vancouver-based ventilator manufacturer Pantheon Design and Delta-based 3D-printing company Tinkerine. Once the ventilator design has been tested and perfected, it will be mass produced by Tinkerine, which was co-founded by alumnus Eugene Suyu, of SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology.  

“Collaboration in today’s world pushes the speed in which we can innovate,” says Suyu. “The ventilator project is an important one, not just for current times but also to prepare us for the future with efficient tools to tackle challenges we may face.”

SFU mechatronics summer coop student Teresa Lau worked on the project with two other students. Lau helped to design and print the frame, sort and board the hardware and electrical components and put everything together into a prototype. She  picked up the components and worked from home during the height of the COVID-19 shutdown. “I think the whole COVID-19 remote work experience was unconventional and presented its own challenges but we all tried our best,” she says.