A Cal Poly engineering professor and two of his students have been collaborating since mid-March to design low-cost ventilators that could potentially be used to treat COVID-19 patients in the event that hospitals reach capacity.

In San Luis Obispo County, there are currently 60 total ventilators, with 25 more on the way, according to the County Public Health Department.

After hearing stories of the catastrophic shortage of ventilators and other medical supplies in Italy, which has forced healthcare professionals to ration equipment and prioritize younger patients with higher chances of survival over the elderly, industrial and manufacturing engineering professor Eric Paton said he was deeply moved. 

Paton discussed the situation with mechanical engineering sophomore Cameron Wong and industrial engineering sophomore Ryan Lee, who were equally inspired to help.

“It was my students that really took charge and they started doing all the research,” Paton said. “They knew nothing about ventilators and neither did I.”

Wong and Lee conducted research on various types of ventilators to create their design, which they said is relatively inexpensive and can be built with materials found at a hardware store, such as Ziploc bags and plywood.  

“The cool thing about our design is that it can be built by any person,” Wong said. “They don’t have to come from an engineering background, so anybody that would be in need of a ventilator would be able to put it together from their own homes.”

Wong and Lee submitted their design to the Department of Defense Vulcan Challenge, which calls for innovators to design ventilators that can be built under a $300 budget, among other requirements, in an effort to address the U.S.’s ventilator shortage.

According to Wong, the challenge was just “icing on the cake” and the students’ main focus right now is to keep working on their design and quickly build a prototype.

Wong said many local residents have reached out to them offering their help and supplies after a recent news story about Wong and Lee’s work was aired on the Central Coast radio station KCBX,

“With the help of those people, and hopefully the help of Cal Poly faculty, we can start putting together a real prototype,” Wong said.

Wong said he does not expect the prototype to be certified by the Federal Drug Administration, but he and Lee have designed the do-it-yourself ventilators for use in an emergency situation in which coronavirus patients who would need ventilators to survive are unable to get them due to overflowing hospital capacity.

Paton has also began researching ventilator designs that could be inexpensively built with commonly-found supplies. Paton said he discovered a promising design from the University of Florida and is currently using it to build a prototype.

Paton has additionally been locating hard-to-find ventilator repair manuals and uploading them to the iFixit database. iFixit is a local company whose website provides instructions on how to fix a plethora of devices.

“There are 175 ventilator makes and models around the world, and so far we’ve located 143 of them,” Paton said. “And that’s just the beginning.”

Paton said even after the manuals are located, they must be transcribed from technical jargon to more common language to repair the ventilators.

Paton has been modifying the curriculum for his spring quarter Introduction to Materials Engineering Design III (MATE 130) course, which will be held virtually, to include a final project in which students create ventilator technical manuals with simplified instructions for iFixit.

“I think this [final project] is going to be a nice substitute where people can really contribute, make an impact and do it from home,” Paton said.

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