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How an Italian start-up turned snorkelling masks into ventilators

Tech company Isinnova is helping hospitals facing a shortage of ventilator masks with the use of 3D printing

Italian engineering and design start-up Isinnova shows its technical officer Alessandro Romaioli wearing a common snorkelling mask transformed into an emergency respiratory mask with 3D-printed valves. AFP
Italian engineering and design start-up Isinnova shows its technical officer Alessandro Romaioli wearing a common snorkelling mask transformed into an emergency respiratory mask with 3D-printed valves. AFP

Italian technology start-up Isinnova is helping hospitals facing a shortage of ventilator masks by producing a 3D printed adapter that converts a snorkelling mask into an oxygen therapy device – a critical treatment of the most serious coronavirus patients.

These 3D-printed masks are currently used by at least 10 hospitals in different parts of Italy. They can potentially address the shortage of masks due to the high infection rate in the country.

“Medical staff just need to connect this 3D-printed C-PAP [continuous positive airway pressure] mask with the oxygen source or cylinder and it will work just like a ventilator,” Alessandro Romaioli, technical officer at the Brescia-based digital company Isinnova, told The National.

So far, Isinnova has developed 500 pieces of the 3D-printed C-PAP masks and distributed them free.

Italy has the highest number of infections outside of China and accounts for the largest number of deaths worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking the outbreak. More than 7,500 people have died in the country from the 74,380 who have contracted the disease. The pandemic has infected about 473,000 people globally and killed more than 21,300.

Isinnova was first contacted by Dr Renato Favero, former head physician of the Gardone Valtrompia Hospital in Brescia, a city in the northern region of Lombardy – one of the areas hardest hit by the virus.

“Mr Favero shared with us an idea to fix the possible shortage of C-PAP masks for sub-intensive therapy, which is emerging as a concrete problem linked to the spread of Covid-19 … now we are making emergency ventilator masks by adjusting snorkelling masks already available on the market.”

epa08315212 A view of respiratory valves to be transformed into respiratory masks, made in 3D printing method and produced by the start up Isinnova that is based in Brescia, Italy, 23 March 2020. The piece is a venturi valve, which is attached to a tube and connected to a mask. Isinnova told a local hospital in Chiari that was running out of respirators to keep patients oxygen alive they could have the valves that cost some three euros to manufacture for free. The company is already in talks with another hospital for a similar delivery, and can manufacture some 100 valves daily. EPA/FILIPPO VENEZIA
3D-printed valves for coronavirus patients at a hospital in Brescia. EPA

The company, which employs 14 people, has joined forces with French sporting goods retailer Decathlon to procure snorkelling masks to develop the prototypes.

“Decathlon was immediately willing to cooperate by providing the CAD [computer-aided design] drawing of the mask we had identified,” said Mr Romaioli.

“The product was dismantled, studied and required changes were made and evaluated. Finally, a new component was then designed to guarantee the connection.”

However, the 3D-printed mask is not certified and its use is subject to a situation of mandatory need.

“The idea is designed for healthcare facilities and wants to help in realisation of an emergency mask in the case of a full-blown difficult situation, where it is not possible to find official healthcare supplies,” Isinnova said in its blog.

“Usage by the patient is subjected to the acceptance of use of an uncertified biomedical device, by providing a signed declaration,” it added.

Isinnova is also using 3D technology to meet a scarcity of valves used in ventilators.

Made of plastic, the valves weigh 20 grams each and connect oxygen masks to ventilators used by coronavirus patients. They are called Venturi valves, named after the 18th-century Italian physicist Giovanni Battista Venturi.

“This is a difficult time and we have to face it together as a team. We are not charging anything for our services and are open to sharing the technology with any other firm in the world … this is our gesture to give back to the society” Cristian Fracassi, founder of Isinnova, told The National.

Engineer Alessandro Romaioli wears a diving mask modified with a respiratory valve that makes it a respiratory mask and produced by the start up Isinnova that is based in Brescia, Italy. The piece manufactured is a venturi valve made in 3-D printing method which is attached to a tube and connected to a mask. EPA
Engineer Alessandro Romaioli wears a diving mask modified with a respiratory valve that makes it a respiratory mask. EPA

Although the case for replacing industrial manufacturing on a wider scale with 3D printing is unproven, the technology has great potential in many sectors, according to the ratings agency Moody’s.

Industries such as aerospace, medical devices, eyewear and automotive will benefit from this technology which rapidly builds a three-dimensional object that can be customised cheaply using a computer-aided design model, Moody’s said in a report last year.

Updated: March 26, 2020 04:58 PM

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