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Informatics graduate's contribution to tackling the global medical equipment supply problem

Nikolas Pilavakis, a summer research intern with the Laboratory for Foundations of Computer Science and this year’s MInf (Master of Informatics) graduate, contributed to a collaborative university-NHS-industry project that evidenced the potential of flexible manufacturing for future emergencies such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Lessons learned from the project are presented in a paper published in a special issue of Frontiers in Medical Technology.

At an early stage of the pandemic, the University of Edinburgh, NHS Lothian and several companies (AESSIS, Lomond Process Engineering, GemDT and Shapespace) formed a consortium that examined the use of reverse engineering or redesigning critical hardware for healthcare applications in an attempt to tackle global supply shortages of medical equipment and materials caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A screenshot of a production line management software
An example of the work that Nikolas carried out. The figure shows how a new "part" (or product) is created. The lifecycle of the product begins as soon as it is created.

Nikolas joined the team led by Dr Katherine Dunn from the School of Engineering as a software engineer to help develop a Product Line Management (PLM) tool. Supervised by Dr Antoine Vallatos from the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, Nikolas’ task was to work with a cloud-based PLM tool called Aras Innovator to design, develop, and test a software solution that would assist the management of the development of bespoke healthcare hardware products.

Nikolas says: ‘Without a second thought, I asked to join the team as I was very interested to help in any way I could to try and relieve some of the pressure from the NHS.’

The spontaneous solidarity efforts that emerged in the University during this difficult period have been really inspirational! I’m really happy that I was able to join these efforts and contribute.

Dr Antoine VallatosCentre for Clinical Brain Sciences

Other members of the project team used high-tech three-dimensional scanning methods to study existing biomedical hardware and endeavoured to make replacements using 3D printing. Another group set out to design and build a new lock-box that could be used to securely hold syringe pumps, which are used to deliver medication such as painkillers.

The group’s findings demonstrate that flexible manufacturing has the potential to secure backup supply chains for future emergencies, using pop-up ‘nanofactories’ that can adapt rapidly to developing situations. Their experience shows that such adaptive manufacturing must be data-driven and will need to blend old-fashioned engineering techniques with new cutting-edge methods.

The team’s paper also discusses the numerous technical and legal complexities involved in the development of customised components for use in clinical medicine.

The university team included students, postdoctoral researchers, technicians and academics. Besides Informatics, members were drawn from the School of Engineering, the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, and the uCreate studios.

The team worked very hard on a wide range of projects, bringing together expertise from academia, industry and the NHS. We hope that our work will be instructive to others endeavouring to develop flexible manufacturing for emergency situations, in the context of clinical engineering or elsewhere.

Dr Katherine DunnThe project lead

Related links

Full paper in Frontiers in Medical Technology

Katherine Dunn's personal page