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We made a ventilator … We also make trucks

March 20th - The news was slowly increasing in intensity; the trickle had become a flood now. All headlines and primetime debates started to focus exclusively on the topic. A new word in our world, “Corona” or Covid-19. That’s all we have been hearing of ever since. Not a sentence is spoken without it. Initially, the call for lockdown was looked at like a refreshing change in our routines, a respite from the usual hectic life we were leading. People weren’t too worried, this was a small bother that would blow off in a week or two probably was the thought process. People mulled over why such a small number of cases warranted a shutdown. The answers would eventually come- like a tsunami of sorts.

Then the projections came, and everything changed. The office MS Teams group was buzzing with new information by the minute. People started discussing “curve-flattening” and social distancing. The Covid-19 was here to be tackled, not wishing it away. While we hoped for the best, we wanted to be prepared for the worst.

The spark was ignited again in a Teams conversation. We wanted to help the government in this fight. What could it be? Manufacture protective gear? Masks? or disinfectant? We then realized that we had to play on our strengths. Designing complex assemblies and ramping up for series production was our forte. What if we made a small portable ventilator? The idea was brilliant. Everywhere there seemed to be a dearth of them. This was a life saver. This could be the Aapki Jeet. Hamari Jeet moment for us. It was decided. We were making a low cost ventilator.

The medical equipment world was an unknown entity, intimidating even. We were not sure if we were up to it. But how often do we have a chance to affect so many lives so directly? 30 volunteers stepped up. It was little unnerving at first, small kids, elderly parents and expecting wives at home had to be persuaded even while overcoming personal fears ourselves. The call for duty diverted attention from personal fears and doubts, there was no time for fear when you are focused on solving a problem.

Initial concept discussions went excitedly over multiple MS Teams meetings; engineers with free hand sketches passionately advocating on why their design was superior to the rest. There was a decision to be made urgently; time was of essence if we were to help immediately. It was decided not to reinvent the wheel. Dr. N Saravanan took the decision to go ahead with a proven proto concept from MIT. A quick core team was assembled with me in the lead, to look into the feasibility of the open source design. Teams were formed, and responsibilities allocated separately to study structure, drive, plumbing, Motor, Instrumentation and Electronic controls. Control Software by Shankar Akella, Styling by Dhrubajyoti Deb, Electronics by Srinivas Chandra / Huzefa guided by Gopalakrishnan.

The MIT open source ventilator design was studied threadbare, medical inputs were debated with clinicians, the pros and cons of actuation system were discussed in detail. The electronics control feasibility was studied. The result was overwhelmingly supportive for going ahead with the design. The sourcing opinion was taken from the team. Mr. Karthick Athmanthan & Mr. Sundaresan reviewed the design proposal. It was good to go! 

Everything kicked into higher gear immediately. Passes were to be arranged from the corporation office, with lots of difficulty- Great thanks to Sundar V (CSR Team) without him things would have been difficult, things to be bought, vendor shops to be opened, finding medical supplies etc. People had to travel as far as Thiruvallur collectorate to obtain permission to open shops. Finally, the first set of passes arrived. The Corporation on the other hand was enthusiastic with the idea of locally manufacturing ventilators. 

As soon as any problem was posted in MS Teams, volunteers came up immediately. People were identified for taking up 3D printing of parts, CAD design, bending of sheet metal, powder coating, medical circuits, Pressure sensor, Motor with encoder and much more. Sourcing team led by Vivek Agarwal also joined hands. Engineers had to travel through Covid-19 hotspots for critical components. Everything went into a blur. 

D-day had arrived. The first proto as proof of concept was to be built. It was a Saturday afternoon. The team was to gather in VVC after nearly two weeks of shutdown. The overgrown grass lawns and birds chirping happily welcomed us to an empty office. Proto shop was opened, and four enthusiastic faces beamed inside eagerly waiting to see what the fuss was about. The core team of 15 members assembled in proto. The parts were smaller and compact when seen in person compared to what we saw virtually. 

The fully functioning proto was going to be ready only after eight long hours at night 11 PM. Everyone was exhausted, two rounds of tea and biscuits from canteen helped us motor along. The team broke out into applause when the first sets of motor compression started. This was not the achievement, this was a good start. The team took a selfie and dispersed. It was decided to provide media bytes only after consulting physicians on viability. We wanted to help, not to attract attention.

The next two weeks were spent in sorting out kinks in the drive system, styling, calibration of output flow, writing out detailed control logics and many more intricacies. Everyone was new to medical terminology. Online courses were posted for engineers to update their knowledge. Contact with MIT engineers was established to clear any doubts. The Government panel from Niti Aayog was consulted. Medical help from CMC Vellore doctors was requested. We understood the Gravity of the situation and we had to be on top of our game at every stage. Had we bitten more than we could chew? Doubts persisted. But solutions were always around the corner. The second set of prototypes for testing rolled out. The sourcing team finalized suppliers and things were falling in place accordingly.

The testing went ahead smoothly. We gained confidence to exhibit the device to the TNMSC Doctors. They were skeptical at first and asked pointed questions on our understanding of the subject. We were dealing with lives here and they wanted to be sure we had covered every single aspect. The mood then shifted as the details we had gone through were understood. Improvement points were suggested, even some wonderment on how we accomplished such a feat given the short time. The customization was appreciated; something that was absent even in more expensive ventilators. The doctors had agreed to take the ventilators for clinical trials. The Ashok Leyland team and I left the premises with heads held high. This was a promising start.

Today the trials are in progress and we hope to start manufacturing these life savers very soon. We are a proud bunch, and this could not have been possible without the collective effort of all those involved and support from the management. 

Ashok Leyland is proud of the entire team who has worked day and night to build this ventilator.

#staysafe #stayhealthy

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