The need for ventilators is a worldwide problem in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and Auburn University is doing its part to help find solutions.

The team at Auburn got to work two weeks ago on developing low-cost ventilators. Led by Auburn faculty members Tom Burch and Michael Zabala and sophomore mechanical engineering student Hayden Burch, the team of Tigers had its first prototype on Sunday.

Tom Burch is a senior lecturer in the mechanical engineering department, and Zabala is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

“It has just been tireless working,” Zabala said. “We started two Fridays ago … two days into the project, we had the first working prototype in my garage. Since then, we have gone through multiple design iterations and we’ve settled on what we’ve been referring to as our generation-3 design.”

The project, named RE- INVENT, converts a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine into a ventilator. CPAP machines are commonly used to treat sleep apnea.

“It was unlike any environment I’ve ever operated in just because of the urgency of the problem at hand,” Zabala said. “Everybody was unified to get to a solution as quickly as possible, which in some ways is counter to the normal design process. Normally the design process requires numerous iterations, large amounts of market research and extensive time for redesigns, tests and things like that.

“In this case, it is unique, because all you have to do is read the news to understand how dire the situation is and how quickly that is happening.”

In addition to the original three members of the team, Joe Ragan was charged with computer-aided modeling and mechanical design, Mike Hamilton handled the control systems, Ryan Hall aided in hardware design, Justin Harrison contributed to fluid mechanics, Jim Chapman was in charge of instrumentation and controls, and Rob Engle and Glenn Woods advised on the project.

Woods is an anesthesiologist who provided the team with guidance from a medical perspective.

“(Woods) has been our main go-to throughout the design process and making sure this is tailored specifically to do what it needs to do medically to properly treat a patient,” Zabala said.

The team worked nearly around the clock to continue the development of the RE-INVENT project. The third iteration of the device has gone through over a week of bench tests.

“I still teach five days a week, and I have six graduate students who I mentor in my lab,” Zabala said. “It has been a tremendous amount of work. I’ve been starting around 7 a.m. and ending around 11 p.m. for the past 10 days. It’s nonstop.”

A machine can be built in as little as four hours, but he expects that time table will continue to become more streamlined. The total cost of the machine is about $700 in readily available component parts, on top of the cost of the CPAP machine.

“FDA guidance, based on my understanding, provides that a device such as this can be used in the event that there are no other FDA-approved alternatives,” Zabala said.

More information on how the machine functions can be found on the Auburn engineering department website at eng.auburn.edu/reinvent. The developers are continuing to work to refine and validate the efficacy of the design.

“It is extremely exciting to announce to the world what we’ve been working on so hard for so long,” Zabala said. “We have entered into the second phase of determining the best path forward to ensure that as many people in as many facilities as possible get these devices.”

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