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Coronavirus medical supplies are dwindling. New open-source designs for 'makers' may be the answer.

A Thai surgical mask factory, producing 10 million masks a month, increased working hours to cope with the rising demand due to the coronavirus pandemic. Their products are exported mostly to the U.S. and Europe. Shortages suggest the U.S. needs other options.
A Thai surgical mask factory, producing 10 million masks a month, increased working hours to cope with the rising demand due to the coronavirus pandemic. Their products are exported mostly to the U.S. and Europe. Shortages suggest the U.S. needs other options.
(Image: © JONATHAN KLEIN/AFP via Getty Images)

As hospitals around the world reel from the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, an international team of engineers, doctors and scientists has banded together to compile open-source designs for vital medical supplies.

When the number of cases in San Francisco spiked last week, entrepreneur and engineer Gui Cavalcanti decided he had to do something. At the time, there were widespread reports of a shortage of ventilators — machines that deliver air to the lungs of patients who can't breathe. So, he started a Facebook group to bring together engineers and create an open- source design that any manufacturer could use to start producing these devices.

But after a conversation with a senior health care practitioner who had just been trained on the response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, he discovered that a much more pressing concern was the rapidly dwindling stocks of basic medical supplies, especially those required to protect health workers from infection like masks, gloves and face shields.

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"The issue here isn't the fancy technology, it's the health care workers," said Cavalcanti, who is co-founder and CEO of San Francisco robotics start-up Breeze Automation.

"They said, 'Forget the ventilators. If we run out of ICU physicians, it doesn't matter how many ventilators in the world there are, because if you can't shove a tube down someone's throat without killing them, they're not going to survive anyway.'"

The group has now switched track to compiling a comprehensive collection of open-source designs for all kinds of medical supplies that will be crucial to tackling the pandemic. The Facebook group now has 23,000 members (which is growing) who are being asked to share open-source designs; there's also a 120-strong moderation team that is collating, reviewing and sharing the most promising of these designs.

As initiatives have sprung up around the world to develop new low-cost and open- source designs for everything from ventilators to face shields, Cavalcanti says there are already hundreds of designs floating around the web. The biggest challenge is cutting through the noise and working out which are most effective and easy to build.

"If you go on Thingiverse (a website for sharing open-source designs), there's like 50 different 3D-printable masks," he told Live Science. "The question is, 'What can we prove will not acutely harm someone and can be used without giving somebody a false sense of security.'"

On Wednesday (March 18), the group released a guide that explains the standard course of treatment for patients infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and identifies the main medical supplies required.

It also catalogs all of the open-source designs currently available, along with reviews from medical professionals explaining whether they are recommended or not and what the potential limitations might be. At present, the group has solutions of varying quality for between 60% and 70% of the supplies required to treat the disease.

"I'm offering people solutions that range from the FDA-approved way to build this thing that's perfect for any hospital all the way down to ones that won't cause acute damage, but are a terrible solution unless you have no other options," Cavalcanti said.

The group's focus is particularly on designs that can be produced by "makers" — hi-tech DIY enthusiasts who use rapid prototyping tools like 3D-printers and laser cutters. That's partly because of Cavalcanti's links with the community as the founder of the "makers space" Artisans Asylum in Massachusetts.

But he also believes our centralized system of manufacturing and distribution is about to collapse under the weight of the pandemic, so the group is trying to recruit as many small-scale makers and factories around the country that can support their local community hospitals.

The group is in the process of building a sister service that will allow hospitals to post requests for specific supplies and link them with local makers and manufacturers who can help meet their needs. But he stresses that their effort is just a drop in the ocean, and a far more comprehensive response from the authorities is needed.

"This isn't a solution," he said. "This is a near apocalyptic stopgap to try and make sure that when all of the supply chains fail, we have something."

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Originally published on Live Science. 

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  • pinsfast
    I have a 50 watt laser cutter and looking to make visors and other protective gear.

    Do you have any resources available, plans? I will try to design the visor myself, seems simple.
    Reply