Lasers battle against COVID-19

This laser case study from Chile demonstrates rapid manufacturing of manual respirators.

FIGURE 1. Mass production of mechanically actuated respirator units; 70% volume of the hardware is laser-cut in stainless steel out of 1- to 5-mm-thick blanks.
FIGURE 1. Mass production of mechanically actuated respirator units; 70% volume of the hardware is laser-cut in stainless steel out of 1- to 5-mm-thick blanks.

JORGE A. RAMOS-GREZ

On March 8, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a world pandemic. Ten days later, the Chilean government announced that the country is under a constitutional state of catastrophe, with measures, among which national entry borders became closed to non-Chilean residents. 

The first cases of the novel coronavirus that had already appeared in the country from the beginning of March, scattered throughout our long narrow territory, brought in mostly by people returning from abroad after their summer holidays. Weeks later, the cases multiplied exponentially, and the number of deaths started to rise. By then, it was known what had happened in Wuhan, China and what was going on in critical epicenters like Spain, Italy, and France at that time. So, nothing less was expected to happen in Chile. 

The reasonable question at that time was if the national healthcare system could cope with the number of critical patients that would require intensive care treatment in the upcoming months, particularly in faraway regions in the country. For a population of 18 million, a total of about 800 mechanical ventilators was available, far from being a convincing solution for what was about to be the imminent dark scenario at hospitals and clinics in the upcoming months. Moreover, if this was a world pandemic, would it be feasible to duplicate the number of ventilators in such a short time period? That was indeed the main dilemma.

Particularly, this means acquiring them from abroad, because in Chile, no one had ever considered manufacturing them. Not to forget, Chile was among the first countries in the world in early 1990s to adopt a fully open market economy in the world, and whose neo-liberal model economy is mainly centered on natural resource exploitation rather than the manufacture of value-added export consumer products. Thus, all the ingredients for the perfect storm were becoming aligned.

The game-changer

However, Felipe Lechuga-Moltedo, CEO of LEMACO Corte Laser (Santiago, Chile), a local manufacturer with 20 years of experience in laser cutting and metal sheet manufacturing, stepped up and decided to take the lead, providing a “made in Chile” solution to the lack of mechanically actuated respirators. His experience in sheet metal product manufacturing allowed him to think big and jump into this altruistic venture. Mr. Lechuga-Moltedo, a graduate from Pontificia Universidad Católica (PUC; also in Santiago), and also currently a part-time lecturer in the Manufacturing Processes class at the Mechanical and Metallurgical Engineering department of the same institution. While a student at PUC, he got involved with industrial lasers during his last senior year and since then, this experience nurtured his interest in laser technology innovation.

Taking the original Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge, MA) design idea for a mechanically actuated AMBU bag respirator and the open-source hardware blueprints provided by the OxyGEN project from Protofy.xyz (Barcelona, Spain), Lechuga-Moltedo began an in-house first prototype construction from scratch. The goal in mind was to certify the prototype and scale up its production of no less than 200 units by the end of July. He soon partnered with his alma mater and the project OxyGEN-Chile-UC was born. Immediately, other undergraduates from the mechanical engineering major joined him in this endeavor. Of particular note is the participation of Allan Guiloff, a senior-year mechanical engineering student who acted as chief engineer in charge of the manufacturing, supply chain, and bill of materials.

The two had realized that 70% of the required volume hardware structure could be laser-cut out from 304 stainless steel ranging from 1 to 5 mm blank thick sheets on one of the four multikilowatt laser units, a Bystronic 6 kW fiber laser unit, available at LEMACO (FIGURE 1). The envelope case, inner mechanisms, and actuator cam plates could be designed and prototyped in a matter of hours (FIGURE 2). The rest of the components, the AMBU bag, dials, connectors, valves, and hoses, were selected from different suppliers, including automotive parts resellers of window scrapers and DC motors and other companies that provided injection molding of plastics fittings and connectors.FIGURE 2. The Bystronic fiber laser is shown in action cutting the camshaft actuator plate (left). A laser cut of an actual camshaft plate is also shown (right).FIGURE 2. The Bystronic fiber laser is shown in action cutting the camshaft actuator plate (left). A laser cut of an actual camshaft plate is also shown (right).

In total, 25 components out of a total bill of 138 parts were laser-cut worth $250 in cost, including the material. The electronic components, of course, were an important challenge to overcome, yet former classmates and faculty from PUC assisted Lechuga-Moltedo and his team in the prototype board design and later CNC routing of the PCBs. Thus, in less than a week, a first prototype was ready to be tested and it was publicized in the media to gain attention from government and nonprofit associations. One was Caja Los Andes (a for-benefit nonprofit organization), which granted $100,000 to cover the production and deployment costs of the 200 units. The testing of the equipment was first tried on animals at Universidad de Chile in a Santiago research facility and finally obtained its proper authorization from the Chilean Institute of Public Health. According to Lechuga-Moltedo, “This was an outstanding milestone that made us truly believe that in Chile we could design, prototype, and fabricate this medical device.”

The race from prototype to mass production

The Anacletos Angelini Innovation Center of PUC soon offered the OxyGEN-Chile-UC Project the physical space to set up the assembly line and store all the components arriving from LEMACO and other suppliers (FIGURE 3). Guiloff indicates, “An average rate of 25 units per week were fabricated, but the maximum capacity could reach 200 units per week.” By the end of July 4th, months after the declaration of the pandemic by the WHO, a total of 170 units had already been assembled and began their deployment across the nation.FIGURE 3. The assembly line at the Innovation Center 9th floor at PUC is shown (left); an OxyGEN-Chile-UC respirator ready for air transportation to far away regions in Chile is also shown (right).FIGURE 3. The assembly line at the Innovation Center 9th floor at PUC is shown (left); an OxyGEN-Chile-UC respirator ready for air transportation to far away regions in Chile is also shown (right).

Many patients were aided with this respiratory device, saving the lives of several of them. These respirators are awaiting now, in case a second wave occurs next winter, and if more are needed, then production will take off again.

Lessons from this outcome

In the last 10 years, the manufacturing sector in Chile has lost about 9 points of its GDP% share. Seldom are any consumer products, which require assembly, manufactured inland. Instead, the neo-liberal free open economy favors products to be imported from abroad, with little or no local added design value.

This pandemic has taught us how dependent we are as a nation on manufacturers outside our borders and not being capable of self-supply with key equipment under catastrophic situations. Lechuga-Moltedo and his team were a game-changer and have proven that by mastering adequate advanced manufacturing technologies such as laser cutting, it is indeed possible to conceptualize and add value in the form of complex products fabrication. Once more, laser cutting has proven to be an extremely versatile and enabling technology when fast cutting complex shapes from thin metal sheets is required.

Of note is the fact that Lechuga-Moltedo has built-in laser technology at LEMACO is of not coincidental; it is almost a 20-year-old process that started at the university and then professionally matured as a startup, signaling the importance of the university-industry liaison at early stages.

JORGE RAMOS-GREZ (jramos@ing.puc.cl) has his bachelor’s degree from Pontificia Universidad Católica (PUC) and MSc (Eng) from the University of Liverpool, and in 1997 he graduated from the Technische Universität Wien as Eurolaser Engineer. In 2003, he obtained a MSc and Ph.D. from the University of Texas in Austin. He is Associate Professor at the PUC Mechanical and Metallurgical Engineering Department, conducting research in additive manufacturing, particularly SLM, with over 100 publications. 

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