The ventilators made from snorkelling masks: Italian engineers make emergency medical gear with 3D-printed valves to help hospitals battle coronavirus

  • A startup firm based in Brescia, in the crisis-hit region of Lombardy, is making the emergency ventilators 
  • The crucial part of the equipment is the 3D-printed ‘Venturi valve’ connecting the mask to an oxygen tube
  • The company is gearing up to make 100 of the valves a day and supply them for free to local hospitals
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

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Italian engineers are making ventilators out of diving masks and fitting them with 3D-printed respiratory valves in an inventive plan to keep hospitals supplied at the height of the coronavirus crisis. 

A Brescia-based startup firm has offered the contraptions for free to local hospitals in the region of Lombardy which is at the centre of Europe’s worst virus outbreak. 

The crucial part of the equipment is the 3D-printed ‘Venturi valve’, a device named after 18th-century physicist Giovanni Battista Venturi which connects the mask to an oxygen tube. 

The company is gearing up to make 100 of the chess piece-like valves per day and hand them out to medics who are trying to bring the crisis under control.    

Engineer Alessanro Romaioli wears a diving mask which has been modified with a respiratory valve - meaning it can be used as a respiratory mask to help coronavirus patients

Engineer Alessanro Romaioli wears a diving mask which has been modified with a respiratory valve – meaning it can be used as a respiratory mask to help coronavirus patients

Italian engineer Romaioli demonstrates the mask in Brescia today. The valve is 3D-printed and attached to the tube and mask to make a ventilator for Italian hospitals which are running short

Italian engineer Romaioli demonstrates the mask in Brescia today. The valve is 3D-printed and attached to the tube and mask to make a ventilator for Italian hospitals which are running short 

Cristian Fracassi, the founder of the startup firm Isinnova, offered his company’s services after hearing about the valve shortage by word of mouth. 

‘We were told the hospital was desperately looking for more valves. They’re called Venturi valves and are impossible to find at the moment, production can’t keep up with demand,’ said Fracassi, 36. 

The valves connect oxygen masks to respirators used by coronavirus patients suffering from respiratory complication. 

Respiratory problems are among the most severe symptoms of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus which has killed more than 5,400 people in Italy.  

But some patients have had to be treated in makeshift hospital conditions as virus cases pile up, prompting a desperate appeal for more equipment.  

Cristian Fracassi (left), engineer and CEO of Italian start-up enterprise Isinnova, and engineer Alessandro Romaioli pose for a photo while delivering valves to the Mellini hospital in Chiari

A 3D printer producing some of the valves

Pictured left: CEO Cristian Fracassi and engineer Alessandro Romaioli pose for a photo while delivering valves to a hospital in Chiari; right: a 3D printer producing some of the valves at the company’s base in Brescia

A view of the respiratory valves on a table. The company can make 100 of them per day and is offering them for free to a local hospital in Chiari, a town in the hard-hit province of Lombardy

A view of the respiratory valves on a table. The company can make 100 of them per day and is offering them for free to a local hospital in Chiari, a town in the hard-hit province of Lombardy

Engineer and CEO Cristian Fracassi displays a diving mask modified with a respiratory valve

A close-up view of the 3D printed valve

Pictured left: Engineer and CEO Cristian Fracassi displays the diving mask in Brescia today after it was modified with a respiratory valve. A close-up view of the 3D-printed valve is shown right

The local hospital to Fracassi’s firm is in Chiari, near Brescia, a prosperous northern city now in the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Fracassi and his team were able to replicate the valves using a 3D printer at Isinnova’s headquarters in Brescia. 

‘When we heard about the shortage, we got in touch with the hospital immediately. We printed some prototypes, the hospital tested them and told us they worked,’ Fracassi said. 

‘So we printed 100 valves and I delivered them personally.’ 

Although specialist masks and ventilators are in short supply, engineers hope to combine the valves with more plentiful equipment such as snorkelling gear and gas masks.  

Engineer Alessandro Romaioli displays a diving mask modified with a respiratory valve

One of the startup firm's workers holds up a respratory valve

Engineer Alessandro Romaioli (left) displays one of the diving masks modified with a respiratory valve which a company in Brescia is supplying for free to local hospitals

Fracassi said he did not meet a single car as he drove through the streets, an eerie sensation caused by the transport ban in place. At least 10 patients were using equipment containing the valves by the evening. 

He said it cost next to nothing to produce the valves, which weigh around 0.7 ounces (20 grams) each and are made of plastic. 

‘I’m not going to charge the hospital … It was the least I could do to help doctors and nurses who work all day long to save human lives,’ he said. 

The company’s usual products range from hi-tech luggage for fashion brand Gucci to a special paint it is currently developing to survive temperatures of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000C). 

Two of the diving masks and some of the ventilator valves, showing how they can be fitted together to make a respirator

Two of the diving masks and some of the ventilator valves, showing how they can be fitted together to make a respirator

Four of the respiratory valves are displayed in Brescia today. The so-called 'Venturi valve is named after 18th-century physicist Giovanni Battista Venturi and connects the mask to an oxygen tube

Four of the respiratory valves are displayed in Brescia today. The so-called ‘Venturi valve is named after 18th-century physicist Giovanni Battista Venturi and connects the mask to an oxygen tube

 

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