What ‘frugal design’ reveals about the future of innovation

Dr. Msandeni Chiume Kayuni discovered herself in the center of a provide disaster as COVID-19 unfold to Africa in April 2020. As head of pediatrics at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi, her staff confronted a essential scarcity of N95 and common surgical face masks. Nurses and docs had been placing.

“We had members of hospital employees put their instruments down as a result of they didn’t really feel it was protected to follow,” she advised us in an interview.

Ingenuity kicked in. The Malawi staff bought raincoats from the native market to make use of as private protecting gear (PPE) after they couldn’t afford applicable robes that price thrice as a lot. In contrast to disposable robes, the rain gear might simply be sanitized in bleach and reused.


Worldwide, as the international provide chain for primary PPE, diagnostic checks, and gear to deal with critically unwell COVID-19 sufferers buckled beneath the pressure, medical personnel improvised and engineers started growing options nearly in a single day. Engineering college students used university-based maker areas to invent and produce new applied sciences—face shields, automated hand-washing stations, diagnostic testing gear and respiratory assist gear—that allowed healthcare staff to securely ship efficient care.

As engineers working in the U.S. and Malawi to develop efficient and inexpensive medical units for low-resource communities, we routinely follow and train this stage of resourcefulness, dubbed “frugal design.”

Spreading the gentle

Medical personnel reused accessible N95 masks, supposed for use as soon as, for weeks or months, which required revolutionary methods to disinfect them, together with heaters, gasoline sterilizers, and ultraviolet gentle.

UVC—short-wavelength ultraviolet gentle—kills or inactivates viruses, together with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In the pandemic, scientists arrange UVC methods in spare rooms at hospitals to sanitize masks.

The University of Nebraska Medical Center outfitted a room with UVC gentle towers and coated the partitions with reflective foil to maximise the dose of UVC gentle. Soiled masks are clipped to rows of clothesline strung throughout the UVC room. An operator exterior the room begins the lights, and a detector in the room ensures the masks obtain a virus-killing dose of gentle. Masks will be disinfected and reused multiple times with out damaging their integrity.

Engineers in Houston, Malawi, and Tanzania labored collectively to cut back the price of room-based UVC disinfection systems to lower than $800, and a number of other methods at the moment are put in in hospitals in Malawi and Tanzania. Engineers at different areas built disinfecting stations by adapting UV lights in the hoods usually used to develop cells in tradition or by repurposing the UV light in an aquarium sanitizer.


Native innovation for PPE

Throughout the world, engineering college students used novel maker areas at universities with 3D printers and laser cutters to hurry new PPE designs into large-scale native manufacturing. College students and employees at Malawi’s two engineering colleges, Malawi Polytechnic and the Malawi College of Science and Know-how, and at Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam Institute of Know-how, adapted open-source designs to provide face shields. They consulted with clinicians at companion hospitals to enhance consolation and security whereas utilizing solely domestically accessible supplies.

Growth organizations, together with UNICEF and the United Nations Growth Program, ordered greater than 8,000 face shields that had been domestically produced and delivered to space hospitals.

Rethinking diagnostics designs

Diagnostic laboratories couldn’t receive key provides wanted to run COVID-19 checks in the early phases of the pandemic. In early 2020, main hospitals and public well being methods struggled to acquire swabs, sample tubes, reagents, and equipment wanted to fulfill the elevated demand for testing.

The primary accessible COVID-19 take a look at relied on polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, a way that will increase the quantity of a viral RNA in a pattern to detectable ranges. This methodology of testing requires specialised reagents and gear to isolate viral RNA, remodel it to DNA, and set off the amplification course of.

As a result of of the complexity of PCR-based testing and the shortage of take a look at reagents, the Nationwide Institutes of Well being invested $1.5 billion in the RADx program to spur innovators to search out novel, inexpensive diagnostic checks. Many revolutionary checks have obtained emergency use authorization from the Meals and Drug Administration and at the moment are used all through the world.

For instance, researchers at Harvard used a easy single-temperature response to amplify viral RNA, eliminating many of the obligatory steps and reagents of PCR and rushing up the testing time. Researchers at Stanford tailored the mechanism inside a toy flashlight to construct a simple electricity-free centrifuge to assist carry out this new COVID-19 take a look at in areas that lack electrical energy and different laboratory infrastructure.

Reinforcing ventilator provides

In response to the international scarcity of ventilators in the first months of the pandemic final 12 months, engineers designed easy units to supply short-term respiration assist. Open-source plans for 2 methods—one designed by the MIT Emergency Ventilator Project and one designed by college students and employees at Rice University—can be found on-line.

A world shortage of oxygen in low-resource international locations has led many healthcare suppliers in these international locations to fall again on mechanical air flow. Ventilators are additionally briefly provide, partially as a result of of problems with a U.S. ventilator donation program.

College students and college at the Malawi College of Science and Know-how developed a system similar to the MIT and Rice ventilators that may be assembled utilizing supplies accessible in Malawi. College students at Malawi Polytechnic labored with native physicians to develop a ventilator with more features.

Hygiene innovation

Public well being officers emphasize the function of hand-washing, together with social distancing and face masks, to curb the continued unfold of COVID-19. Nevertheless, many colleges and even some hospitals in low-resource settings don’t have operating water and sinks that permit college students and sufferers to recurrently wash their fingers.

In response, Brenald Dzonzi, an engineering pupil at Malawi Polytechnic, designed a no-touch hand-washing station. Small quantities of cleaning soap and water are robotically distributed from prefilled containers when a person stands in entrance of the station. The system is constructed from native supplies and is now put in at an area hospital. As much as 2,000 sufferers can safely wash their fingers earlier than the system must be refilled.


Dzonzi was awarded the UNICEF Youth Challenge award to fund continued growth of the hand-washing station.

Elegant and sustainable design

When gear is unsuitable for an atmosphere, as a result of it could possibly’t tolerate sizzling, dusty situations, for instance, it finally ends up discarded in gear graveyards—serving nobody. In distinction, efficiently executed frugal designs supply sustainability and suitability for low-resource environments.

An instance of this sort of elegant design is the Foldscope, a low-cost paper microscope used to enhance medical diagnostics and science training in low-resource settings. Different examples embody LED-based phototherapy lights used to deal with jaundice in newborns, and low-cost CPAPs that convey respiration assist to small and sick newborns in low-resource healthcare services.

To encourage frugal design, universities throughout the world are altering how they teach engineering—specializing in frugal design and interesting college students like Dzonzi to invent options that solve real problems. Although the pandemic sparked a world want for frugal design, the follow is essential usually for narrowing the healthcare hole between high- and low-resource communities and bringing healthcare providers to underserved communities.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum is a professor of bioengineering at Rice University and Theresa Mkandawire is an affiliate professor of civil engineering at the University of Malawi. This text is republished from The Conversation beneath a Inventive Commons license. Learn the original article.