Amid ongoing concern about a ventilator shortage nationwide, researchers at Rochester Institute of Technology are collaborating with local and regional companies to produce emergency prototype ventilators.
RIT’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability, which partners RIT researchers with regional business and health care sponsors, is at the vanguard of Rochester’s efforts to contribute resources during the global pandemic.
The specially designed ventilator prototype can plug into hospital oxygen supplies to help patients. The ventilator already has met clinicians’ needs related to treating COVID-19, after tests and demonstrations at Rochester Regional Health on March 30.
Nabil Nasr, associate provost and founder of GIS, assembled a team of research engineers and staff at GIS, co-op students, senior engineers from the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies and the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute to create the groundbreaking prototype. Home to six research centers, GIS draws upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students.
The effort went into motion when Nasr was approached by Rep. Joseph Morelle last month, following a public briefing by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on a looming shortage of ventilators.
For Nasr and his team, the initiative is quite different from a standard product development project given the urgency for ventilators.
“We’re working on a lot of things simultaneously, and that’s not quite how things are done during product development,” Nasr says. “Two days is like an eternity here because we work day and night. It’s sobering to see how everyone has made time. We’re just trying to do what we can to address the challenge.”
Project team members have been working with regional collaborators since mid-March to create the prototype and make appropriate modifications to meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration approvals, under the leadership of Michael Thurston, director of the New York State Center of Excellence in Advanced and Sustainable Manufacturing at RIT.
Collaborators on the project include RIT Trustee and Vice Chair David Burns, principal and founder of Global Business Advisory Services LLC; Mark Schiesser, principal of Adaptive Automation; Appcon Group Inc.; and Paul North of equipment manufacturer G.W. Lisk.
“It’s been terrific to hear from so many organizations trying to figure out what we have and what could be of help to us during this project,” Nasr says.
G.W. Lisk, designer of highly custom engineering solutions and equipment based in Clifton Springs, stepped up to help with the project when staff members realized they could produce a special valve, known as a positive end-expiratory pressure valve. This valve prevents lungs from collapsing during the exhale cycle of breathing for patients in need of ventilators.
“In approximately seven days we took an awareness of a need through concept and design development, analysis, prototype, and building,” says Pat Pendell, G.W. Lisk’s vice president of engineering.
North, chief operations officer at G.W. Lisk, says the team worked around to clock taking an idea to a working prototype.
“It’s been a tremendous team effort from nontraditional team members,” North says. “G.W. Lisk has a long history of community service. Our team was independently looking to see how we could help.”
North, a former product development student of Nasr’s, notes that COVID-19 is bringing together unlikely groups of professionals in the Rochester community.
“Rochester has a real spirit of the health and education industries. What we’ve seen is those groups come together.” North says. “I never imagined team of engineers working side by side with caregivers and university experts. Our team is incredibly proud of what we’ve done so far.”
Nasr and his team also consulted with Century Mold, Tessy Plastics Corp., Harbec Plastics and Currier Plastics to move forward with an injection-molding process, estimating the tooling would “last up to a million cycles.”
To help treat COVID-19 patients as soon as possible, Nasr and his team are working with collaborators on the design, documentation and prototyped parts with a goal to produce a larger quantity of ventilators at a rapid pace.
“This project is reaching a great point now. We feel good about where we are,” Nasr says.
The team continues to communicate with doctors as new information and regulations come forward. Nasr participates in daily calls with clinicians as they learn more about patients with the disease and are able to convey requirements for his team.
“The people on the front line who have been meeting with us daily, going to labs after shifts every day to check on the progress—those are really the heroes,” Nasr says.
Aside from doctors, Nasr feels grateful for the Rochester community’s response and willingness to help in big and small ways.
“It’s been an eye opener,” Nasr says. “We knew we had great community here, but it was overwhelming in terms of people reaching out … saying things like, ‘Hey, I have this kind of equipment and material, will that help?’ There’s so much honesty and integrity in the people who jumped in to help.”
Robert Mantell is a Rochester-area freelance writer. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.