New York manufacturing team develops a low-cost emergency ventilator in three weeks
In times of need, manufacturing is driven by a philosophy John Lennon said best, “There are no problems, only solutions.” Today, manufacturers have pivoted to produce the critical supplies and equipment necessary to battle COVID-19 at a rate never seen before. SME’s Humans of Manufacturing Heroes Edition tells the stories of the teams, companies and partnerships adapting to produce the tools needed to fight this global pandemic. Going behind the scenes to share how these once-in-a-lifetime transformations are happening and the people making it all possible.
Driving into work one Tuesday morning in late March, Charles Boyce grew tired of hearing about the ventilator crisis in New York City. The president of Long Island City-based Boyce Technologies Inc. and a lifelong resident of the Empire State, he decided to do something about it, so convened a meeting with several of his engineers when he arrived. Within 24 hours, Boyce and his team had repurposed various components and software from the company’s line of mass transit emergency communications equipment and built a working ventilator unit, complete with a touchscreen display and microprocessor control.
As it turns out, however, their direction was about to change. Boyce received a call that same afternoon from his friend Scott Cohen, co-founder of technology and entrepreneurial development firm Newlab LLC in nearby Brooklyn. Cohen asked him to join a group of companies that were developing and manufacturing an open-source Emergency Ventilator (E-Vent) design from MIT.
“I told Scott that we’d already started working on a ventilator, but agreed to meet with him to discuss other ideas," Boyce said. "In the end, we abandoned our internal design, although we were able to leverage much of the research that we’d already done. It wasn’t about commercialization or who got credit for a ventilator at that point—it was about saving lives.”
Boyce wasn’t alone in his desire to urgently develop a solution for the tens of thousands New Yorkers then at risk. One of Newlab's partner companies—10XBeta, which is located in the same facility at the Brooklyn Navy Yard—also played a vital role in the Spiro Wave Emergency Ventilator Response initiative. Founder and CEO Marcel Botha noted that 10XBeta and Newlab each helped drive the design-for-manufacturing and subsequent distribution pieces of the project, but he was quick to point out it was Boyce and his team that did the heavy lifting.
“Boyce Technologies is focused on producing high-value systems for specific functions,” he said. “Manufacturers like these are typically unable to retool quickly for non-standard products, but Charles and his team are anything but typical. They had a mandate to build ventilators as quickly as possible, and knowing that lives were at stake, they worked non-stop to accomplish their goal. Never in my 20 years of industry experience have I seen a product scale so rapidly or so effectively.”
Mandate or no, manufacturing takes time, and as Boyce explained, the shop was already busy making products for the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority). Undaunted, they placed their existing work-in-process on pallets and either shipped it to a storage building in Long Island City or pushed it to the perimeter of the 25,000 square foot production floor.
They then bypassed the lengthy tooling phase common in traditional manufacturing by machining, waterjet cutting, and manually assembling parts until production molds and extruded material could be completed. Shortcuts were accepted, efficiency and manufacturing costs were temporarily set aside, provided they could make parts. “We built the first few dozen units the hard way, with 100 of us working day and night for three weeks until we succeeded,” Boyce said. “I’m very proud of my team for all that they’ve accomplished so quickly.”
Panic mode is now over and the initial call for ventilators has been met, but there’s still a lot of work to be done, he added. As of this writing, Boyce Technologies has built a stockpile of Spiro Wave ventilators and is comfortable producing more at a rate of 300 per day—enough to meet the needs of New York and beyond. It’s also worth noting that Boyce Technologies, 10XBeta, and Newlab have formed a separate company—Spiro Devices LLC—to further promote adoption and development of the new ventilator.
Despite their accomplishments, it's work that Boyce would prefer not doing. "We intend to authorize qualified companies to make the Spiro Wave in a royalty-free arrangement and give them access to our designs and extrusions,” he said. “We don't want to make ventilators, but we don't want people to die because they don't have one. We’ll do whatever it takes to avoid that.”
Though not intended to replace traditional ventilators, the Spiro Wave boasts a simple, relatively low-cost design and can be manufactured at scale right now.