Nelson Mandela Bay team develops low-cost automated bag mask ventilator

LIFE-SAVING DEVICE: Bay engineers Neo Mabunda and Zain Imran are developing a low-cost bag mask ventilator
LIFE-SAVING DEVICE: Bay engineers Neo Mabunda and Zain Imran are developing a low-cost bag mask ventilator
Image: Supplied

Seeing the need for devices to assist people suffering from Covid-19 and other diseases, a multi-disciplinary team of innovative young engineers based at the Propella Business Incubator in Port Elizabeth have dropped all their other projects to develop a low-cost bag mask ventilator.

The device fills the urgent need for a low-cost non-invasive ventilator for less serious cases, and frees the expensive units used in intensive care units for those in need of advanced care.

“I was impressed by the simplicity, yet effectivity of the design,” says Dr Hennie Smit, a Port Elizabeth general practitioner with extensive experience in anaesthesia.

“It is meant to assist respiration and not full ventilation, and therefore only needs a tight-fitting face mask, and is suitable for use in general wards where it can be monitored by non-specialist nurses,” he said after evaluating the working prototype.

Propella incubator members and Nelson Mandela University engineering students Zain Imran and Neo Mabunda teamed up with Zain’s brother Zaahid and Kelvin Langwani to develop a working prototype within five days.

“In anticipation of the lockdown we moved our 3D printer and other necessary equipment and components such as motor and microcontroller from Propella to Zain’s home,” says Mabunda.

The team, which has complementary engineering skills, is now back at the Propella Business Incubator, with special permission.

At the heart of the unit is an inexpensive plastic pouch called a bag-valve resuscitator, or Ambu bag, which most hospitals already keep -— and, crucially, according to Zain Imran, already has the necessary medical certification.

“We set the standards based on WHO (World Health Organisation) requirements for ventilators and ticked all the boxes, such as the volume of air delivered to the lungs, the breaths per minute, Inspiration/Expiration Ratio (IE) and control/fail-safe capabilities,” says Imran.

“The result is a pre-intensive care ventilator that ticks many of the requirements of a high-end ventilator.”

The Salutaris (Latin for life-saving) device is powered by a servo motor that expands and contracts two arms. Rapid prototyping was possible thanks to the 3D printer.

It can be powered by mains or a car battery and durability testing is underway.

The Propella team is also linked to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, which is working on a similar concept.

“A number of teams around the world have announced ventilators which appear to be functional, but where the Salutaris differs is that it is a highly engineered solution designed from the outset for manufacture with full production and cost optimisation in mind,” says Engeli Enterprise Development operations director Wayne Oosthuizen.

Engeli, which founded the Propella incubator together with NMU, is assisting with fundraising and commercialisation of the bag ventilator to ensure it is made available to hospitals and clinics as soon as possible.

“We are aiming to start production as soon as the tooling for the injection moulded parts is complete. All that is holding us back is the finalisation of the funding needed for the tooling and initial investment in components,” says Oosthuizen.

Another Propella member, Clifford Hamilton, is working on the moulds and helping with the design to make it as efficient as possible for manufacturing.

Final pricing is not yet available as some components will have to be imported, “but we are setting our pricing benchmark at R5,000 or less.

“This isn’t about maximising profits, but getting an operational and cost-effective ventilator into hospitals,” says Oosthuizen.

A production facility is being designed with the help of Grant Minnie of Propella, who is an industrial engineer.

“We have the factory space and are sourcing certified reusable face masks, which will both bring down the operating costs of the machines and speed up delivery.

“The plan is to produce up to 20,000 units a month, if the market demands this,” he says.

“This fast-track rollout from concept to production shows the power of the Propella ecosystem which we have crafted over the past few years,” says Propella manager Anita Palmer.


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