Welcoming a New Kind of Ventilator Into the Fold

As the pandemic continues straining healthcare systems everywhere, this origami-inspired, 3D-printed portable ventilator could save lives.


There’s no question that ventilators are a workhorse of critical care, helping patients breathe when they struggle to do so on their own. This can happen when hospitalized for conditions like pneumonia, brain or spinal cord injury, stroke, and more.

Recently, COVID-19 patients have filled ICUs around the world in waves, many requiring ventilation. That put new strain on this limited resource, and traditional ventilators are expensive and slow to produce.

That’s why researchers are looking into ways to quickly produce a low-cost and portable ventilator. One such team was led by Woo Soo Kim at Simon Fraser University’s Additive Manufacturing Lab, in collaboration with the University of British Columbia’s IDEA Lab and clinicians at Vancouver General Hospital.

A ventilator acts as an external set of lungs, regulating the flow of air over a long period of time. Squeezing an airbag by hand is often used as a temporary measure in the field, and so most makeshift ventilators earlier in the pandemic were designed to offer machine-driven compression of an airbag to pump air in and out. It was a solution that could be deployed quickly, but the airbags themselves were breaking down faster through extended use and repeated compression that they weren’t designed to handle.

By contrast, this 3D-printable portable ventilator weighs less than 5 kilograms, costs about $200 to manufacture, and features a more resilient origami-inspired airbag.

3D printing is central to the ventilator’s design, enabling unique geometry that would be difficult to manufacture in any other way.

The airbag design features a programmable pattern of creases and folds that distribute mechanical stresses during each compression cycle. Shaped like a tube with triangular facets, the airbag twists as it expands and contracts. The team can also integrate electrodes to monitor pressure and performance, helping them tune the fold pattern and volume to suit a specific patient.

The compact and lightweight design means that the 3D-printed ventilator can be easily transported outside specialized hospital settings. That could expand access to life support to places like long-term care facilities, remote locations, and developing countries.

In partnership with Canadian 3D-printing firms Pantheon Design and Tinkerine, the team hopes to scale up mass production of their device.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.