After going through a challenging six months, Class of 2021 Cadet Eston Smith found that the best way to distract himself was to work hard and throw himself fully into projects.
While at home due to COVID-19, he found a new project by watching the news. During a good news section at the end of the broadcast, the anchors mentioned a COVID-19 working group at Massachusetts General aimed at creating new innovations to fight the virus.
Smith reached out to the working group explaining that he is a mechanical engineering student at the U.S. Military Academy and was interested in helping out.
The email linked him up with the Massachusetts General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation and he was asked to use the skills he has learned at the academy to design a ventilator.
His research showed him that the issue wasn’t so much designing a ventilator that would work, as he found more than 100 different designs dating back to 1940 that would get the job done. Smith instead setout to find a way to solve the issue with actually building and getting the ventilators to where they are needed, such as his town of 2,000 people in Oregon.
Smith had never designed a ventilator before, but he used his understanding of thermodynamics and the engineering design process he’d learned at the academy to build one from scratch. Fifteen hours in front of his computer screen and two energy drinks later, he had a 95% solution to the problem designed.
“I thought, how do we get these into the small towns,” Smith said. “I knew the answer to that wasn’t going to be centralized manufacturing or having a big distribution network that can be set up in the allotted time. I thought, well everyone has a 3D printer. High schools have 3D printers. Any midsize hospital with a bioengineering facility will have a 3D printer. My initial attack on the design was something that could be nearly entirely 3D printed with as little parts sourced as possible.”
He submitted his design to the working group, which is made up mostly of physicians and graduate students from Harvard and MIT, and they agreed to present it to the team and the head of the innovation center for approval, Smith said. He then worked with mechanical engineering faculty at West Point to make a few minor adjustments to the design, which was subsequently approved by the innovation center to be produced and tested.
“(The head of the Innovation Center, Dr. Robert Kacmarek) put me in touch with a couple of grad students at Harvard,” Smith said. “They’re doing the control system with all of the sensors and electronics. I’m skilled in the physical and mechanical principles, but I’m not great with electronics. So, he brought on some people to do the electronics.”
Kacmarek also put Smith in contact with Giner Labs in Boston, which will manufacture the initial prototype of the ventilator. They are currently working on printing the pieces, Smith said, and then the ventilator will be tested on artificial and pig lungs at Mass General. If the ventilator passes the tests by producing the correct intake and outtake pressure, the next step will be working to get it approved by the Food and Drug Administration for medical use.
“The motivation for this was just to help others. I’m going to be transparent in saying that I really enjoyed building it, I like building things, but the initial motivation was to just help others,” Smith said. “The entire motivation behind building this was that you could just send the digital files out and someone could manufacture it off of those.”
While Smith was busy designing a ventilator from scratch on his laptop at home, his professors in the department of civil and mechanical engineering were doing their own part to help with the COVID-19 response efforts.
Col. Michael Benson, the director of mechanical engineering, said he was inspired by a listserv of mechanical engineering department heads from throughout the country to reach out to Keller Army Community Hospital and see what help his department could provide.
The answer was Keller needed help with personal protective equipment, which is in short supply nationwide. Benson and his department were quickly able to loan 27 face shields from their labs to the hospital. They then got to working making more shields to meet Keller’s needs.
They started by slightly modifying a Georgia Tech design for a 3D printed face shield and then used their printers to produce 70 face shields for Keller.
“There’s a frame that fits your head that we 3D printed,” Benson said. “Then we put a little rubber bumper so it was comfortable on your forehead. We used some plastic film that we had on hand and that’s how we manufactured them. You punch some holes out and there were tabs on the frame to fix the plastic shields to so it stays in place and then a little glue gun action to seal everything up.”
Staff in the mechanical engineering department also printed ventilator splitters Keller could use in worse case scenarios and worked to design stopgap ventilators that could be used in emergencies.
Working within the parameters of an Army design competition, Benson and his staff designed three different phases of ventilators that automate ventilation processes that are currently manual.
“We settled on a simplistic solution to take an existing approved medical device, which is a manual ventilation system where somebody would literally squeeze a plastic bag and that would be how you’d manually ventilate somebody,” Benson said. “We just automated that.”
They designed one system that uses a rod and compressed air to squeeze and then release the bag. The second iteration used an electrical system to manipulate the bag.
“Our strategy was to provide a bridging solution. If all your ventilators at a field hospital, for example, were in use, then you could use a system like what we’ve developed, which can be developed and produced really quickly,” Benson said. “It turns out, a patient would need to be ventilated for as long as three weeks for this virus. So, having a bridging solution that would allow somebody to have some sort of sustained respiratory function while they’re waiting for a full ventilator could be handy.”
The ventilator systems were tested on the calibration equipment at Keller and Benson said if a system such as the one they designed is needed, they could build a few a day in house at West Point to help save lives.