Just four weeks to a concept for an emergency ventilator
The lockdown in spring 2020 meant that the majority of Festo employees had to join the ranks of those working from home. Yet within the space of just four weeks they managed to develop a suitable solution for an emergency ventilator for a COVID-19 treatment, thanks to an agile development process and standard components that were quickly delivered.
For 16 years, a concept by a group of scientists for an emergency ventilator – based on Festo automation components – lay in the archives of the British government. Back then it was developed in response to the pandemic of 2002/03 triggered by the SARS coronavirus. Festo learned about it in March 2020 when it received an enquiry from a customer in the UK.
In spring 2020 – at the height of the coronavirus pandemic – this enquiry provided the impetus to dust off the plans and develop an emergency ventilator using modern automation components from Festo, partially based on innovative piezo technology. “This tailored solution for a COVID-19 treatment provided the answer to the impending supply shortages for ventilators”, explains Dr Frank Jacob, Head of Business Unit LifeTech at Festo.
Expertise in automation and competency in oxygen
“As the world’s leading supplier of automation technology, Festo has decades of experience in designing ready-to-install subsystems. The Business Unit LifeTech supports equipment and system manufacturers in the development of solutions for the precise regulation of oxygen, for example”, explains Jacob.
Proportional valves with piezo technology play an important role. They enabled the Festo employees to come up with a well thought-out concept for an emergency ventilator in just four weeks. “What makes the system special is that it uses mostly Festo standard components, which are available in large quantities at short notice”, adds Jacob.
Agile, continuous and interdisciplinary teamwork
To further speed up the development, Festo consistently relied on an agile and interdisciplinary approach. The partners in this case were not equipment and system manufacturers, but rather lung specialists from hospitals throughout Southern Germany. In a continuous development process encompassing several stages, the doctors provided valuable feedback so that the concept could be optimally adapted to the specifics of a COVID-19 treatment.
The project started with ten Festo employees from the LifeTech and Advance Development business units. As the requirements increased, colleagues from the Pneumatic Drives, Electric Drives and Process Automation divisions came on board. The result was an interdisciplinary team of almost 100 creative minds. The collaboration was mostly virtual, since almost all employees were working from home during this period due to the coronavirus lockdown.
Precise and reliable pressure regulation with piezo technology
A big challenge for the automated ventilator was precisely controlling the proportions of the various gases for the breathing air. It was also necessary to bear in mind that a slight excess pressure had to be maintained on exhalation to prevent the lungs collapsing or water collecting in the lungs.
“Festo proportional valves based on piezo technology proved the ideal solution for this. They enable fast adjustment of the pressure and very precise pressure regulation”, explains Jacob. “The piezo valves are also especially compact, lightweight, quiet and energy efficient”, he continues.
Easily integrated components – optimised for oxygen
The emergency ventilator from Festo shows how simple it is to combine easily integrated components with clear interfaces into suitable systems. The Business Unit LifeTech benefits from Festo’s involvement in a wide variety of industries as an automation specialist: “For example, the business unit can draw on expertise from the food and electronics industries, which have the highest standards for cleanliness and hygiene”, says Jacob.
Spurred on by this successful concept and in view of the increasing demand as well as the number of potential applications, Festo is extending its portfolio of products which are suitable for use with oxygen. These currently include the 2/2-way proportional valve VEAE and the mass flow controller VEMD with integrated control electronics.
Festo is a global player and an independent family-owned company with headquarters in Esslingen am Neckar, Germany. The company supplies pneumatic and electrical automation technology to 300,000 customers of factory and process automation in over 35 industries. The products and services are available in 176 countries. With about 21,000 employees in over 250 branch offices in 61 countries worldwide, Festo achieved a turnover of around €3.07 billion in 2019. Each year around 8% of this turnover is invested in research and development.
In this learning company, 1.5% of turnover is invested in basic and further training. Yet training services are not only provided for Festo’s own staff – Festo Didactic SE also supplies basic and further training programmes in the field of automation technology for customers, students and trainees.