WPI professors, students design, build and ship kit style fans to Africa


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WORCESTER – As hospitals in Massachusetts faced ventilator shortages during the pandemic, Greg Fischer, professor of robotics engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, assembled a team to develop low-tech, inexpensive ventilators that could be easily replicated. .

The team had their work supported by the Massachusetts Emergency Response Team (MERT), a collaboration of different organizations in Massachusetts that produced the materials needed for the COVID-19 pandemic, which is being managed by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

“During the pandemic, the state developed MERT … as ventilators,” Fischer explained. “In this context, we started to develop low cost ventilators that can be easily replicated, because at the time, it looked like it was going to be really urgent to have them. “

Fischer’s team included John Obayemi, a professor who teaches biomechanics and stress analysis, undergraduates, graduate students, and even local high school students. Obayemi joined the team due to his engineering expertise and helped Fischer lead the students.

“They wanted someone with an engineering background, someone who was really motivated by just understanding some principles and also the concept of the process, and how we can really, not just get into the process of assembling them. fans, or understanding the concept of design, but trying to see how we can have a meaningful impact or transfer the knowledge to the people who are actually in Africa, ”Obayemi said.

“I’m an African Nigerian by nationality, so they wanted someone who was kind of motivated by purpose, by this innovation and also by skill.”

WPI robotic engineering professor Greg Fischer is working on a simple fan at his home in March 2020.

The team was able to develop two types of ventilators, which they eventually started sending to around 20 educational institutions in African countries as part of the WPI / Africa COVID-19 Pandemic Engineering Program.

“The first one we made was actually mostly auto parts based, and we very intentionally designed it so that it could be quickly replicated using readily available components and easily manufactured technologies. available, “said Fischer.

Fischer calls this fan the “flat fan,” which he says looks like an Ikea box.

“Almost everything is laser cut or waterjet cut into flat pieces, and then there is an engine. And that’s really it, ”said Fischer. “The idea is that you can make it out of plastic with a laser cutter, you can make it out of metal with a waterjet cutter… You can even make it out of wood in a furniture cutting factory with a CNC machine. (Computer Numerical Control). . “

Range of materials a motivation

Fischer said the ability to use a wide variety of materials was the main motivation behind the development of the first fan.

The second fan was a collaborative development with Boston Engineering and “a few other people.”

An example of a fan designed by a team of undergraduate and graduate students and faculty from WPI, as well as high school students from Worcester.

He explained that the second fan looks like a more traditional style device.

“It’s a lot smoother… It’s a much cleaner custom design,” Fischer said. “It’s harder to make something like that, but nothing here was really too far down there … They were all pretty reasonably made parts, but also, the circuit boards that we made, the electronic control that we have manufactured, has actually been a major contribution. “

They have developed an open source project called “Open Source Universal Fan Controller”.

“It’s a printed circuit board that’s calculated based on an Arduino, so it’s very readily available control electronics and then a breakout board to go with it,” Fischer said.

He said this control board can be used with “just about any fan,” including those developed by other groups such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Obayemi said the goal was to be able to integrate materials, such as windshield wiper motors, with electronics to efficiently deliver oxygen, especially to COVID-19 patients.

“The idea is to see how we can use locally sourced material or readily available material to kind of come up with systems, especially at a time when you have a pandemic,” he explained. “So that’s one of the motivations for us to do this.”

The team has also developed a host of open source software, soon to be released, that will allow groups, including groups from all African countries, to come in and tweak designs to meet their needs.

Key to raising awareness in Africa

Obayemi explained that the decision to send these fans to African countries came from a desire to make an impact, as well as WPI having already established a relationship with institutions there in previous campaigns.

“It’s one of our strengths in WPI, to try to reach different parts of the world and see how we can make meaningful developments,” he said.

The provost had led an effort to develop STEM education, with programs such as math and science for sub-Saharan Africa, in different African countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, Fischer said.

“We actually sent people, equipment and supplies over there,” he said. “They also sent a whole bunch of people here at least once for training sessions, so we already had this network of engineering and research centers.”

The team sent the institutions two fully functional fans, along with kits of unassembled parts to assemble and reverse engineer.

“They both have brand new, fully working devices with all the bells and whistles, one of the same but a stack of parts with instructions so they can really learn how to put them together and find out more,” Fischer mentioned. “Because when you put it together, it’s good to show you how to use the software, it’s good to show you how to use it, but if you want to make your own, I think it’s useful to understand how it goes together. “

He said that between all that was sent to them, they should be able to synthesize everything and contribute to the community.

“Each group now has roughly two new functional groups – one without all the electronics, one unassembled but fully capable – and then a simpler design version,” said Fischer.

Fan assembly

Obayemi said they were teaching educators and engineers at different institutions across Africa how to assemble fans.

“We are working with a group at Boston Engineering to provide all of this information and carefully train it in groups, especially the educators and engineers we work with at the various 20 universities across Africa,” Obayemi said.

A ventilation kit during assembly.

The meetings also provide an opportunity for institutions to discuss what features they want to add or expand on fans, Fischer said.

The other benefit of this was not only the ability to help support national and international health systems, but also the development of the workforce for undergraduate, graduate and secondary students, did he declare.

“We got these people to build fans, test them out, and help them pack and ship them to sites,” Fischer said. “In the future, we’ve actually kept a few systems here that we’re going to be able to use for teaching and educational purposes in the future, or we can actually use them to train new students to work on these types. of systems. “

“Mind-blowing” experience

But for Josh Fernandez, a junior specializing in robotic engineering at WPI, the construction of the fans was “mind-blowing.”

“It’s cool to learn about it and like, I build robots and stuff for class, but we pretty much take them apart afterwards and don’t really use them,” Fernandez said. “So to see something that we put in place that I had a lead role in, to see it used and tested and being sent overseas.… It’s really, really good.”

Fernandez worked closely with another student from WPI and Obayemi to build the fans, starting with the mechanical parts first.

“We were shown how to put the mechanical parts of the fans together… over the next few weeks we pretty much just reiterated that… we had 25 fans, I believe,” Fernandez said. “After that, we focused more on the electrical parts, like hooking up the motor, hooking up the motherboard, like the fan controller, and testing to make sure those were working.”

High school students from Worcester Technical High School and Saint John’s High School in Shrewsbury, as well as students from Quinsigamond Community College were also invited to help.

Fernandez worked closely with the students, showing them how to build the fan, test them, and integrate the electronics, the same way Obayemi taught him.

Kits prepared, shipped

For about a month or so, they’ve been packing pre-built fan kits, along with assembly parts, into shipping boxes.

The high school kids were able to handle the process well, Fernandez said.

“It was really easy to show them what to do, and if they had any questions I tried to answer them and they almost immediately got down to building them,” he said. . “By the time they finished building our own fans before we started to equip them all, they were pretty much self-sufficient in building the mechanical parts of the electrical parts, incorporating the fans.”

Fischer hopes that as work continues with the 20 institutions a co-development relationship will form.

“We really want to keep working with these groups to move forward and really start doing co-development,” Fischer said. “So far this has been pushed to them a lot, but hopefully they start to develop, and it’s really going to create a community that we’ll help moderate, but it’s really going to take it off on its own. “

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About Gertrude H. Kerr

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