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Aaron Pearson
Vice President of Public Relations
Sometimes the worst of times ignites innovation in ways that wouldn’t happen otherwise. That certainly was the experience of a team from fuseproject, a design and innovation firm in San Francisco, and their partners at medical technology start-up Cionic. Back in March, employees of both companies were looking for a way to respond meaningfully to the COVID-19 pandemic while dealing with the limitations of working from home. The CoVent-19 Challenge sponsored by Stratasys proved to be the perfect assignment.

The Challenge: Develop a rapidly deployable mechanical ventilator for treating COVID-19. Make it effective in helping save lives, affordable, and easy to build with off-the-shelf and 3D printed parts. And oh, by the way, you have four weeks. The challenge was developed by a team of anesthesiology residents from Massachusetts General Hospital in the darkest days of the pandemic in the Northeast United States.

As it turned out, more than 200 teams from 43 different countries successfully took up the challenge hosted on GrabCAD, submitting their designs by the May 1 deadline. The fuseproject-Cionic team and its VOX Ventilator (formerly “InVent”) concept was not only among the top seven finalists but finished as one of the top two winning teams. Discussions are now occurring with a potential manufacturing partner, and FDA approval could be next.

Human-centric design informs VOX concept.

Fuseproject Senior Industrial Designer Daniel Zarem, who served as VOX team captain, says the CoVent project was a distinctly different experience than anything he’d done before in his five years at the firm. “We were all really eager to work on something, and the challenge was a great excuse to call up nurses and respiratory therapists and really dig in,” he says.

“And it was exciting to see Stratasys supporting this challenge because additive manufacturing is great in these pinch moments. We did whatever we could to bring new ideas to the table.” The VOX team brought a human-centric lens to the assignment. It’s not just about the internal components of a ventilator, Zarem explains, but peripheral experiences too. “We needed to understand what the experts really wanted and needed, but also make sure we build something intuitive for newbies too,” he says.

“We talked to the users to understand how their hospital is dealing with COVID and then we would share out designs with them and collect feedback and input.” Those conversations made it clear that while it would be great to build something with limited features for simplicity, COVID is a tough disease and a fuller set of features would be unavoidable. But other discoveries helped. For instance, although some hospital departments could be over-run by COVID patients, many others were quiet because of the lack of elective procedures and patients trying to avoid hospital stays. That meant many of those ubiquitous metal IV poles were standing unused. Why not design a ventilator that attached to those existing poles, cutting out the need to design and seek regulatory approval for a critical support structure? The team also found that off the shelf and 3D printed parts could cover most of their component needs, simplifying production.
VOX 3D printed parts

3D printing accelerates design iterations.

As the challenge shifted from the phase 1 design submission stage, which lasted a month, to the build-and-test phase, which was a little under two months during May and June, Stratasys application engineers stepped in to offer free prototyping services and 3D printing advice, a capability the team knew how to use well. After all, fuseproject CEO and Founder Yves Béhar said it’s been an important part of their work for 25 years. “It’s become as important as pencil and paper to us,” he says.

For the VOX team, Stratasys provided several parts printed on a Stratasys J850 3D Printer™ using PolyJet Technology™, which the team had prior experience with and which complemented the FDM® 3D printer that fuseproject had themselves.

Cionic Founder and CEO Jeremiah Robison says the Stratasys team was a seamless extension of their own and brought not only speed but personalization. To take advantage of that, he learned to not be afraid to ask for abundance of different part variations.“The parts arrive in a box and it’s like Christmas!” he says. “You kind of want to over-buy, because that saves time. We were able to make iterations really quickly, and that’s the key for any industrial design project.”

Robison said their team didn’t make a huge distinction between the two phases. There was code running very early on, and a functional prototype was actually built in the first round. The adjustment was more about the fidelity of the prototype. The CoVent-19 Challenge organizers did shift from potentially focusing on the US market in phase 1 to more of a focus on developing countries in phase 2. “The way we designed the system in a modular way helped us adapt to that very quickly,” he says. “We just had to understand the cost and feature tradeoffs of the system. Regardless of the market, the system still needed to be precise and fully featured, but for some markets, we had to consider costs and the supply chain.”

In the end, the VOX team built what looked like a complete prototype in a recommended form factor, not just put in a box like some teams chose to do. It reflected the team’s strong focus on usability, not just technical capability, including being able to demonstrate how it would attach to an IV pole.

A challenge benefiting teams and the world.

All 213 designs are available to the public on the Stratasys GrabCAD site. They trickled in over a period of weeks so teams could see what each of them were doing. Not that it helped. “Frankly, there wasn’t time,” Zarem says. “We either do our best work or get caught up in what everyone else is doing. Plus, on the one hand, you want to win, but the whole goal is toe. Make sure a ventilator is out there in the world that can make a difference.”

As a top-three finisher, the VOX team won credits for parts on demand from Stratasys Direct, but the experience was worth even more. “The dire urgency of the need, especially in the early days of then pandemic, put everyone in the mindset of having to give it their all for a short amount of time, and that really allowed for a lot of great work in a short amount of time,” Zarem says. “Stratasys and our other partners really shared in that urgency to move faster.”

Added Béhar, “Medical devices are very complex, expensive, usually hard to use, hard to decipher, and easy to make mistakes on, and and I don’t think the industry has been addressed enough by design. What designers have shown they can do in other fields to make things more efficient, safer, easier to use, and open source would benefit medical systems greatly.”

See the full video here