IN DEPTH

Engineer prototypes life-saving ventilator in just days

Sandy Gray holds his ventilator prototype in his shed, with Committee for Ballarat chief executive Michael Poulton. Picture: Lachlan Bence
Sandy Gray holds his ventilator prototype in his shed, with Committee for Ballarat chief executive Michael Poulton. Picture: Lachlan Bence

A mining equipment company may have found a solution to the global shortage of hospital ventilators during the coronavirus pandemic.

Gekko Systems has produced mining equipment for decades, with co-founders Sandy Gray and Elizabeth Lewis-Gray creating technology used across the world.

Now, that same technology, with a few upgrades, could be used to save countless lives as a portable bedside ventilator, which at its most basic level, keeps a patient breathing.

Mr Gray, the genius behind the prototype, said it took him about a week to knock something together after he had a chat with Committee for Ballarat chief executive Michael Poulton about what the company could do to help.

In a shed outside Miners Rest, the scratch-built ventilator - a box of pressure gauges and microchips hooked up to air tubes - was gently inflating and partially deflating a balloon.

"It'll be relatively sophisticated, not a back-of-the-paddock piece of machinery," Mr Gray reassured The Courier - a couple of donated pieces of hospital equipment were scattered on the workbench, so he could make sure it would all work with existing gear staff would know how to use.

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The key component is the valve system, and the computer controller, which Mr Gray engineered with the help of his Gekko team - who all volunteered their time - and the Ballarat Hackerspace's 3D printing setup.

A ventilator is for patients having trouble breathing - a breathing tube attached to the machine is inserted into their throat, which then feeds in air and oxygen, with the pressure removing the carbon dioxide. A filter stops any dangerous particles from escaping.

A mix of air and oxygen can be controlled by the operator, and there are numerous failsafes to make sure it runs no matter what, and pressure is maintained so lungs don't collapse.

Mr Gray said his machine is designed to be as simple as possible, using existing and common components where possible, and easy to clean.

"We'll be shrinking it down by the time we're finished, and it'll have more dials and controls, lots of pings and alarms, but in its simplicity - the main thing is to keep it simple so someone with the book can use it," he said.

"We'll make a 12-volt version of it, so you can literally run it off a car battery and a car compressor, plug in an oxygen cylinder and you can keep someone alive in the bush, anywhere."

Mr Gray collaborated with Ballarat intensive care anaesthetist Dr Doug Paxton on the design, and in a statement, Dr Paxton said after reviewing the prototype, it could be "ready to go in a timeframe that would meet our immediate needs".

"We are at the point in this world-wide catastrophe that we will need to think outside the box. Traditional suppliers and manufactures may not be able to cope with the unprecedented need for intensive care equipment in the time frame predicted," he said.

"To this end I fully support the efforts of a number of local engineers and companies who have agility in the work place to adapt activities in support of the pandemic response, in a timely manner.

"I hope that may we not have to use this equipment but I would be very happy to, if and when the need arose, as we would be able to help a far larger number of patients."

Mr Poulton said the project was an example of Ballarat at its best, displaying collaboration, innovation, and an agile response to a crisis - he compared Mr Gray to Fred Hollows for his life-saving work.

"This is not a solution for Ballarat or coronavirus, it's got global implications with the most vulnerable people at the most vulnerable periods of time," he said.

"There are people in history who have been significant in turning the tide with how we deal with health crises.

"This is an example of someone who's able to turn their expertise in one field to another field that has enormous implications for saving lives in disaster environments."

It all began last Monday with a phone call, he said.

"I was interested in the pubic discussion regarding a potential global shortage of ventilators and the implcations this had for Ballarat and Australia. I wondered, "what if we could make these locally"," he said.

He said the machine, when completed, would have wide use after the coronavirus crisis had subsided, and could be built in Ballarat.

"It's not only a bedside piece of kit - this piece of technology can be used all over the world, in field hospitals in an earthquake zone for example, and that could really help save lives," he said.

"It's an incredibly exciting position for Ballarat to be in, what we need now is government support to get from third base to home base."

Amazingly, if everything goes to plan, Mr Gray optimistically thinks the machine could be ready for manufacture within weeks, and possibly ready for human testing even sooner.

Ms Lewis-Gray said the next stage will be sourcing components and production lines for the plastic parts.

"I reckon it'd be closer to five (weeks), but look what he's done in seven days," she said.

"We just don't know what hurdles might come, so best case scenario, in three or four weeks we could produce a few units, depending on if we get Therapeutic Goods Administration approval, if there's appropriate supply, then we could do more volume in five to six weeks.

"It'll be fit for testing in a week or so maybe, but I've got no idea what TGA processes look like, the government would need to help us."

A spokesperson for the state government said in a statement opportunities with manufacturers, including Gekko, were being investigated "to determine whether they have the capabilities to use their facilities to produce medical equipment and supplies, including ventilators".

They added about 1000 ventilators are in Victoria now, and thousands more are on order with the first batch expected to arrive in the next week.

Another 4000 high flow oxygen therapy units, 130 dialysis machines, and 1200 patient monitors are also being bought.

Mr Gray said he would continue to tinker with the prototype for now, and already had more ideas to try out.

"One of the clever bits we're trying to develop is waiting for 30 seconds to see if the patient's breathing themselves - if they are, it goes into an assist mode, so it feels them breathing and every time it feels them trying to take a breath or expel a breath, it'll help it," he said.

Mr Poulton said that experimentation, and simplicity, was what was needed in the health crisis.

"Maybe we're trying to make things more complex than they should be, and it takes a creative genius to get through," he said.

"Maybe things don't need to be as expensive as they are, and here's a time of crisis where you can challenge what is the norm and say there's a better way of doing this that's far cheaper and doesn't line the pockets of multinationals - maybe it's that recalibration."

Ms Lewis-Gray added she hoped this would reinforce Gekko's credentials, and Ballarat's reputation, as a centre of innovation in Australia.

"Sandy is a resource I'd like people to know about and use, not just for medical emergencies, but also for innovation," she said.

"We attract incredible skills - we've got chemical engineers, mechatronic, electronic, metallurgical, mechanical, physicists, an amazing team of capability at Gekko.

"What's important for me is that I want to keep my people employed, and keep the business viable - yes, I want to save lives and respond to a crisis, but I've also got (these people to look after) - we don't know what the world's going to look like when we get out of this crisis.

"I think it's good to have inspiration for regional communities."

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This story Engineer prototypes life-saving ventilator in just days first appeared on The Canberra Times.