The Brussels engineers racing to make ventilators out of car parts

The Brussels engineers racing to make ventilators out of car parts
In order to not strain already depleted medical supply chains, engineers in Brussels have turned to car parts to produce lifesaving ventilators. Credit: FabLab/VUB

Engineers in Brussels are racing to produce ventilators for hospitals facing global shortages of the devices, vital to treat the most severe cases of the new coronavirus.

Drawing from a model by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB)'s FabLab have developed a ventilator prototype which subs in car parts in lieu of medical components.

"One of the driving principles in our design was to use as few medical components as possible to avoid putting an extra burden on medical supply chains," Mark Runacres, head of the university's Department of Engineering Technology, said in a phone interview.

Carmaker companies and other industries have stepped in to provide the team of some 40 engineers, students and alumni with the necessary material to complete their model.

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"Industry often gave us parts for free, electronic components, windscreen wipers, aluminium... with the rest of the project financed by the lab's budget," Runacres said.

Working day and night —with some team members were even spending the night in the lab—, Runacres said the team was now ready to take the project into the testing phases, for which it launched a crowdfunding campaign.

"The idea is to make ten copies of industrial quality to be able to test for functionality and durability, we have to make sure it can run for at least a week without any issues," he said.

The team is hoping to raise €50,000 to build the ten ventilators, with partnerships already being set up with major industry players for the upcoming testing phases capable of pushing the prototypes into a stage of larger industrial production.

Canada, Italy, Brazil reach out

Runacres confirmed reports that the team was talking manufacturing perspectives with Audi Brussels and that it was in talks with "a number of other big companies too."

While Runacres said their project was initially triggered by the prospect of a ventilator shortage in Belgium, he said their initiative was now widening beyond the country's borders.

"People have become aware of our design and research groups in Italy, Canada, Brazil and India have reached out to us," he said.

In Belgium, the UZ Brussel university hospital is providing "crucial" feedback and guidance to the FabLab team. In an email statement, the hospital said that it currently had enough ventilators to treat Covid-19 patients in their care.

"But since we do not know how the pandemic will evolve in Belgium, we are also preparing for scenarios with a higher number of patients," spokesperson Gina Volkaert wrote on Thursday. "In that context, we are happy to be able to count on FabLab's expertise."

After launching the project on 16 March, Runacres said that the positive response received since the crowdfunding was launched at the start of the week could see them put together a first prototype for industrial testing by Friday.

Gabriela Galindo

The Brussels Times

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