A new study has highlighted how free, open source hardware and 3D printing can help global healthcare systems tackle the demand for health supplies in light of the COVID-19 crisis.
Free and open source hardware (FOSH) follows an ethos where blueprints for a tool are made freely available so that anyone can study, learn, modify, customise, and commercialise them.
In the study, published by PLoS Biology, Professor Tom Baden and Andre Chagas at the University of Sussex have suggested that this could be a viable option to provide our health services with the tools and equipment they so desperately need.
Open source blueprints for healthcare
There are currently many blueprints available for free online which could be used to help in the fight against coronavirus. The study gives an overview of these, focussing on personal protective equipment, ventilators, and test kits.
Although some of the designs still need to be tested, many others have already received suitable verification, having been published in peer reviewed papers. The authors therefore believe that FOSH should be seriously considered as a method of quickly providing equipment where it is needed.
The paper describes existing FOSH designs from simple tools like DIY facemasks to 3D printed valves which can regulate airflow in ventilator tubes. Others are far more complex including state-of-the-art scientific instruments for diagnosis, such as an automated pipetting robot, plate readers and a range of other medical tools and supplies.
Some blueprints are already being used to provide support to the NHS. A company in Portslade which produces face visors has recently removed its patent and license and asked for support from anyone with a 3D printer in order to produce more to meet demand and provide protection to NHS staff.
Tom Baden, Professor of Neuroscience, said: “Now is the time that Open Hardware could really shine and it’s so important that we get on board quickly.
“Previous studies and experiences have shown that free and open source hardware is a brilliant option in disaster situations. Designs can be shared globally, it has typically lower implementation costs than mass manufacturing and it can be easily adapted to meet local resources.
“But the real power – and the way this could really help to tackle Covid-19 – is that once a tool has been designed and tested, anyone can build it. This bypasses the traditional manufacturing and distribution routes and means that it can become a community driven endeavour where anyone with the capacity to do so can help to produce much-needed equipment and supplies for the healthcare services.
“Anyone with the necessary knowhow, tools and time can build on this knowledge to meaningfully support their community. At a time when global health systems are facing immense pressure and becoming increasingly overburdened, we need a response not just from frontline workers such as medical staff and scientists, but from skilled members of the public who have the time, facilities and knowledge to meaningfully contribute.”
Fast track testing
For unverified designs, testing and approval can be a lengthy process.
Andre Chagas said: “One thing governments could do right now, is to figure out a process in which we can legitimately fast track the testing and certification of tools which are in short supply.
“For instance, in Spain a group is already testing their ventilator designs with support from the government. While each country will have different rules and certifications to meet, this is a crucial moment for us to get together and figure out a single set of certifications so that implementation can move faster.”
Professor Tom Baden added: “If governments can support this through financial support to ramp up production of the best tools, that would be incredibly useful right now. But asides from financial support, we also need support from those who actually know about the use of these tools, rather than just their design. To make this equipment properly and safely, we do not just need tech-savvy people building it. We need people in the healthcare sector who know how these tools should work and can actually test them. These people should contact ongoing products to see if they can help.”