The world has been facing a huge challenge – to save as many lives as possible and contain the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19). Engineering communities around the world have been stepping up to this challenge by innovating tools and technologies to assist, including producing enormous amounts of life-saving equipment and PPE, which they continue to do so daily. Together, Engineers Without Borders UK and Publitek would like to highlight how engineers have been using their collective expertise to help save lives during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

Naturally, many people have been eager to offer their help during this pandemic, but Engineers Without Borders UK has been keen to encourage an awareness of personal limitations and professional capability, to ensure individuals are engaging with the response effort effectively. It is important to remember that any crisis response requires interdisciplinary approaches and a good understanding of the hierarchy of needs to deploy resources most effectively and promptly. We have been encouraging the engineering community to recognise that there is no one right way to respond, and that the key to helping during COVID-19, is to listen before taking action.

An Engineers Without Borders UK member – Vishal Shah who has been working with the Pandemic Guard group, demonstrated this perfectly when developing the Pandemic Aerosol Guard (PAG) in response to PPE shortages. Vishal, along with his team members planned their project carefully and relied on the relationship they built with clinicians to gain crucial clinical feedback during the development stage. They trialled the product in five hospitals to learn how to improve the design but also to understand whether the product is needed or wanted in the first place.

“It is important to reflect on feedback honestly and act on it responsibly. This may involve taking the tough decision to stop working on a particular design and change the direction of the project.” – Vishal J Shah.

Vishal and his fellow team members met on an online collaboration platform and technology incubator, where they first began by ensuring they had the right individuals in place, consisting of medical device experts, design engineers, industrial designers, a project manager and entrepreneurs. The Pandemic Guard group understood that there was no time to learn the industry regulations or the risk assessment process for medical devices – this knowledge needed to exist within the team already in order to move quickly. They also needed the ability to develop ideas into prototypes with higher volume manufacturing in mind, so they needed to be able to find opportunities to form strategic partnerships. Consequently, a consortium of medical charities called SHIELD Collaborative assisted with logistics and distribution, and a small design company with prototyping facilities manufactured the prototypes.

“Without these partners, the team would not exist and we would not have the resources to do this project.” – Vishal J Shah

To guarantee responsible use of resources on the Pandemic Guard project, the group asked themselves questions like: When should we raise more capital? When should we launch the website? When should we engage with large manufacturers? When should we recommend our product to clinicians? When should we seek regulatory approval? All of these steps require large resources and there is a potential risk in using those resources. For example, if there is a national shortage of certain types of plastic material and that plastic is used in this product, there may be a more beneficial product that cannot be manufactured as a result. Additionally, regulatory approval requires a lot of documentation, so should medical device experts be working on this product or something more beneficial? Vishal’s group relied on a phase-gate process that provided a logical sequence of tasks, which helped them to significantly reduce wasted time, effort and materials.

Elsewhere in the UK, high profile automotive firms such as McLaren & Jaguar Land Rover offered assistance by manufacturing hospital trolleys, face visors and other medical devices. Less well known manufacturers also provided their resourcefulness, offering their expertise where ever was needed. ProtoLabs – a Shropshire-based rapid prototyping specialist, worked with engineers in Italy to make valves that could transform snorkelling equipment into ventilator masks. And Carousel Lights – a Surrey-based neon and signage specialist, created acrylic screen installations for protective screens used in grocery stores and pharmacies.

These examples show how effective collaboration can be, provided that it is planned responsibly and with forethought. During the last few months, we have witnessed emergency hospitals erected in a matter of days, we have seen non-medical engineering companies offer to transform their factories into ventilator manufacturing facilities, and we have watched as maker groups used 3D printers to create PPE & new medical technology prototypes where shortages have been highlighted. The power of the engineering community is exemplified stunningly during this crisis as thousands of lives have undoubtedly been saved as a result of engineering ingenuity.

This leads us to consider the next crisis that our planet faces – if engineers can do this much to assist during the pandemic in such a short space of time, why shouldn’t we be able to harness this energy and ingenuity for use in the climate crisis too? At Engineers Without Borders UK, we believe in the sector’s ability to create positive change. We are committed to continuously reviewing what more we can do as a movement to ensure engineering is focused on serving all people and the planet better than ever before. People’s minds are rightly focused on the response and recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic but the engineering communities combined power can and will be harnessed for other issues in the future too.

Engineers Without Borders UK & Publitek are working together to encourage engineers to realise their potential impact not only during this crisis, but also in the environmental crisis we are facing as a species. If the engineering community can harness its collective power in the same way as it has to help during this pandemic, imagine what can be achieved. By working together, we want to rally engineers and decision-makers to engage with the Engineers Without Borders UK ethos and ambitions – engineering ingenuity is always available, it just needs to be galvanised.