Ventilator Blueprint? - Systems Thinking Required

It is clear by now that what started off as a ‘crazy idea’ has become a world-wide phenomenon: self-organising groups of engineers, scientists, designers, medical practitioners and crafts-people working together to build the ventilators that the world needs. Just yesterday I shared on Linkedin a post from Robert L. Read who has compiled a growing list of 24 open-source COVID-19 Pandemic Ventilator projects. And his list does not include several others that I know of!

We have been reaching out to some of these projects, and the response is variable. Several have adopted the same policies as the Ventilator Crowd and are being completely open with their emerging designs - an excellent attitude! Others are, somewhat disappointingly, being more ‘protective’ of their work .. promising a ‘big announcement coming soon’. We shall see.

I read on the Guardian web-page that “UK government sends ventilator blueprints to major manufacturers” (here). If such a ‘blueprint’ exists – then it has not been made publically available anywhere that we can find. What they may be talking about is what the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) term a “specification” – however, this document is little more than a ‘User Requirement Document’. Most engineers will recognise that there is a lot of work between a user’s initial requirement (wish list) and a System Design Document (the top-level plans for building it).

Nevertheless, many crowd-sourced teams and bigger industry are making progress towards design solutions. What concerns me more is that many of the crowd-sourced solutions seem to developing very similar designs: essentially replicating an MIT student project from 2010 (here). For sure, there are a number of advantages of this design, but I do worry about having a lot of parallel ‘me-to’ projects.

What we should look out for, and praise, is greater variety in the designed solutions. Because if there are weaknesses in the MIT ‘bag-in-a-box’ solution, then the world will need to draw on a variety of other great ideas. Two crazy ideas, brought together, can be genius.

This type of thinking draws on the Principle of Requisite Variety, proposed by Ashby in 1957: the idea that any system must match the variety and complexity of the environment if it is to deal with the challenges of that environment. In other words, to come up with really excellent solutions we will need many diverse and divergent ideas. These can then be selected, combined and mutated into even better solutions.

As an example, on the Ventilator Crowd team videoconference last night there was a significant concern expressed about the next systemic issues. For example, the creation of many thousands of ‘bag-in-a-box’ solutions will create a large demand on small, powerful electric motors. Do these exist in the supply chain? Should not any design be based around motors that are available in large numbers?

Then once all these thousands of machines are working .. how do we manage their servicing, repair and replacement? New, rapidly manufactured systems can be notoriously unreliable – since there will have been little time for reliability testing and improvement. Even if this is not a safety issue, we also have to work on the process of repairing and replacing failed equipment.

So in summary, I think that amazing progress is being made in a very short time. But is it no small challenge and a deal of Systems Thinking will be required to put the problem to bed permanently.

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