Experts have forecast a potential shortage of ventilators for numerous years, long before Covid-19 made its global spread. As the virus continues to affect thousands, many groups and companies are now shifting efforts to help provide the equipment that is needed as quickly as possible, from the local community level all the way up to giant corporations that specialize in high-tech manufacturing.

One of those is Medtronic, the multi-billion-dollar medical device company. Earlier this week, they began to release the design and software files for their PB560 ventilator, a decade-old, compact machine with a proven history. Many applauded this move, while others (1, 2) pointed out restrictive terms, obsolete hardware, missing software, and no BOM.

Medtronic PB560 ventilator

With a second release, Medtronic addressed the software aspect, and promises a 3rd release this week to add in the BOM component. In the meantime, groups are now mobilizing to determine how to move forward with this latest open hardware (along with the many others underway).

One of those groups is KiCad Services, which is attempting to mobilize a volunteer force to help review and update the PB560 schematics to put them into a consistent design format. (“There are 6 separate boards designed in 5 different programs, making verification for new work problematic.”).

We reached out to KiCad Services’ Seth Hillbrand to learn more.

 

Make: What has this Medtronic situation looked like from your side? 

Seth: Like all of us, I think we have been watching the worldwide situation evolve (devolve?) with increasing concern since the outbreak began to be reported in January. As engineers and designers, we didn’t have a direct role that we saw where we could help. When Medtronic released their v1 filepack, I took a look and was dismayed. There was very little of use apart from scanned schematics. It wasn’t clear whether this was merely a publicity stunt or, as appears now, the beginning of a process for them. We’re thankful that this appears to be the beginning of a process that will hopefully end with them releasing the source code as well.

I have high hopes that they will continue to evolve their thinking on this and lift the time-limited aspect of their licensing as well. I fully recognize that this is difficult for companies that are not used to working with open source hardware. But, I think that the devastation they are witnessing might shift some of the thinking on this.

What spurred your team to want to compile the updated/consistent version of these electronics?

I think the feeling of helplessness in the face of this worldwide disaster is shared by many people. We certainly look around for more that we can do to help. We’re not doctors, nurses or EMTs, so apart from staying home, donating to charities and checking on neighbors, we have been at a loss. When the announcement went out that Medtronic was releasing these datasets, we took a look and saw that this needed substantial work to be useful to any manufacturing site.

We’re very familiar with needing to update/reverse engineer older schematics. This is a common service that we provide. We are currently working with BeagleBoard to update their AI board to KiCad from Cadence to allow more open hardware collaboration.

Anyone who feels similarly and is looking for ways to help out, even if that help might be invisible and anonymous, should reach out. We’re looking for people who want to check over schematics, look for discrepancies. If you have professional experience with circuit board design, we’d love to have you on either a board design group or in the review cycle.

It sounds like there were obsolete/unavailable electronics in the initial release. 

The boards were created in 3 different programs (CR-5000, Eagle, and Altium). These are all commercial programs that already imposes a barrier to manufacture because you will not have many shops that are familiar with or have access to all of these programs. We don’t have access to them either but we do have a good knowledge of the file formats and are using that to extract some of the more technical data into KiCad. We will be comparing our results with the photoplot files and (hopefully) any verification test data that Medtronic decides to release.

What type of timeframe are you hoping for?

If we were working solo, this might be two weeks of full time work. We hosted a KiCad group video chat this morning and posted to Twitter about it. This picked up a few engineers who are interested in helping out. OshPark has also offered to support the prototyping process. We’re looking for parts distributors now who can help out with the components needed to verify the boards.

Where will the information be hosted?

We are hosting this project on GitLab. Right now it lives at gitlab.com/sethhillbrand/openventilator

Any particular people you’re following that are assessing (this or other) Medtronic 560 aspects?

I haven’t seen any other projects attempting to do this or similar work. I suspect that there may be some manufacturers working on quietly on their own but taking this on as a single manufacturer would be a large undertaking. We’re hoping to lower the barrier to production for multiple manufacturers around the world.

One of the largest barriers to getting this out quickly will be regulatory approval. Depending on the country, this may or may not be a limiting factor. We’re talking with a lawyer now to see what avenues we might have to FCC approval for the boards in the current climate. If there’s a way to make this easier for a manufacturer to use, we’re trying to facilitate that.

Are you aware of anyone else working on something similar to you?

Not yet. I hope that there will be. The true benefit to open source hardware is the ability to see and use others’ solutions to learn on your own and build the next, better thing. The more groups working toward the same goal (even with overlapping efforts), the better.

What will happen once the designs are standardized?

We are talking with manufacturers right now in Lyon, Johannesburg and Nairobi that have expressed interest in working with us to build the physical systems. This is a completely volunteer effort on our part as we want to get this out and built as quickly as possible. We hope that countries begin to fund the manufacturers to hire/retain their workers and re-tool their systems to locally produce ventilators. As this is open hardware, anyone is free to reuse the design within the terms of the original Medtronic license but we are happy to assist manufacturers with test jigs and other electronic development needed to mass produce more of these units.

I’m familiar with KiCad, but tell me about Kicad Services.

KiCad Services is a California corporation run by Wayne Stambaugh (KiCad project lead) and myself. We support businesses using KiCad to help them be more efficient and effective. We provide custom KiCad work as well as technical support and training. I’m am electronic design engineer. I’ve worked as an engineer (of various stripes) for the military, corporate sector and university research for 20 years.

Best way for people to get involved?

Send me an e-mail ([email protected]). I’ll add you to the repository and get you assigned to a task. Complete the task and come back for more if you have time.