If the number of covid-19 patients in Belgium continues to rise, there may be a shortage of artificial respirators. A team of engineers at Vrije Universiteit Brussel’s FabLab Brussels has therefore started building and testing a simple ventilator. They started from a design by MIT, extended with sensors based on specifications from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the UZ Brussel. Large-scale production is still premature. In the coming days and weeks, it will first have to be established whether the devices can actually be used in hospitals.

The engineers, led by Mark Runacres, professor of fluid mechanics and head of the FabLab Brussels, have adapted the design to the needs of covid-19 patients. In just a few days, they built a first prototype. “Speed is of great importance now”, explains Runacres. “Doctors on the front line don’t have time to exchange loose ideas with engineers. The FabLab team has therefore chosen not to talk but to build. Based on a working prototype, it is much quicker to decide whether the design is suitable for use in hospitals.”

The prototype was built in the FabLab Brussels by a team of staff, PhD students and students from VUB’s  engineering technology programme. They are part of a national and international network and are in direct contact with colleagues from academia and industry, who provide continuous feedback on the design and make suggestions for improvement. “That input is essential. Some companies have also made components available. In normal times they would probably be a bit reluctant, but now there is an awareness everywhere of the need to work together", says Runacres.

The initiative fits in with the open-source philosophy that characterises the FabLab Brussels: if the prototype is found to be suitable, the plans for the design will be made publicly available, so that other labs can manufacture and improve the design. But in order to produce the volumes that may be needed, the FabLab needs support from industry. The response so far has been very positive.

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