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.