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From Dishwashers to Ventilators: A Conversation with Dr Antonio D’Ammaro

7th October 2020

Like most of us, life for Churchill College alumnus Dr Antonio D’Ammaro (G11), changed significantly at the start of this year. But in addition to the huge lifestyle shifts we all experienced, Antonio found his work focus shifting too. Employed by consumer goods manufacturer Beko for the last three and a half years, Antonio has been working on - amongst other projects – a new drying system with Cambridge Aerothermal. But then a large call to arms to engineering companies in March saw Antonio suddenly turn to making ventilators. And while it might not be an obvious transition to go from domestic appliances to a life-saving piece of equipment, the technology is largely the same. They both have pipes, compressors and valves, and are required to deliver a specific quantity of air.

But it wasn’t just the need for more ventilators more broadly that appealed to Antonio. It was the need for more cost effective, portable options. While most ventilators cost anywhere from £5000 - £10000 each, for many countries, this is an insurmountable cost. Antonio and his colleagues needed a ventilator that would cost significantly less, and be portable for use in countries that don’t have a strong hospital infrastructure. They also needed to ensure that they could continue to be used beyond the pandemic in countries where conditions such as pneumonia are prevalent.

A multidisciplinary team grew in Cambridge from University Departments and local companies, to create the OVSI project: Open Ventilator System Initiative. Once they were allowed back into the Whittle lab where he did his PhD, it took just one week for Antonio and the rest of the team to have a working prototype of their ventilator. The design was taken by motorsport company: Prodrive, which manufactured two ventilators. But naturally the difficulties lay in ensuring that the prototype was safe and fit the precise specifications. The performance of the ventilator was assessed by the National Physics Laboratory in London, who told the team that their ventilator was by far the most advanced that they had seen. Antonio credits this with the fact that the design was driven by clinicians, not by engineers. Working with doctors from South Africa and Italy, Antonio and the rest of the team were able to understand which specifications were essential and which they could compromise on.

By the beginning of April, upgrades were being made to the machine based on the feedback they had received from testing. Defy, sister company of Beko based in South Africa, were brought in, and manufacturing moved there to move the project from prototype to scale. Denel Land Systems were also on hand to advise on certification requirements, and further tweaks to the design were needed due to the current price war for sensors in the supply chain. For now, the team is supporting the certification process in South Africa, and Antonio hopes to travel there before the end of the year to support the finalisation of the ventilators. The hope is to have small scale production happening to provide sub-Saharan countries with ventilators by January. The team plans to make the design available in an open source space for others to use. Because ultimately, the more teams like Antonio’s’ who are making affordable ventilators, the more able the world will be to help those most severely affected by Covid-19, and other pulmonary diseases

As for Antonio, when we asked him what was next, the answer for the immediate future was clear – more sleep! Once the machine has been certified, his work on the project will be done.