Engineering at the frontline of health

Engineering at the frontline of health

Feature articles |
By Nick Flaherty

The emergence of Covid-19 has forced us to re-evaluate so many aspects of modern life, resulting in an urgent rethink of established norms. With people working from home, the usual approaches and processes no longer apply.

In the engineering community, enormous efforts have already been spent supporting the global fight against the spread of the disease. Multi-disciplinary teams from around the world have come together to help to design, develop and test a broad range of medical equipment such as face masks and ventilators, often under the shortest timeframes imaginable.

This response is now moving to the next phase, as engineers play a central role in helping medics to deliver new treatments while supporting researchers on the path to finding a cure. Then there is the requirement to imagine dependable solutions to new challenges such as how to safely re-open offices, factories and other communal areas. In each of these cases, progress will only be made through collaborative working in pursuit of the common good – an ethos that, if sustained, has unparalleled potential to tackle the collective health challenges facing humanity over the next 100 years.

Test software provides crucial support

Right from the start of the pandemic, it was clear that agile testing was going to be crucial. Urgent efforts to develop new equipment such as ventilators had to be done during a time of enormous change, with many engineers suddenly finding themselves working from home.

Fortunately, software engineers have lived in a virtual world, 24/7, for many years now, enabling them to compile, develop and contribute remotely, and in real-time. NI has been software-first since 1986, and the connected nature of our systems means the test community was well equipped to work remotely, running automated test and automated measurement systems from home. In contrast to the closed, box instrument lab, these software-centric systems remove physical barriers to collaboration across the whole team and testing process.

In March, NI made LabVIEW training free for then month to support any engineer or industry professional working from home and interested in becoming a Certified LabVIEW Developer and Architect. The response was remarkable – a nearly 12-fold increase in registrations for the online training on the same period last year. Not only did those engineers and scientists complete online learning modules, but many of them went on to obtain digital learning credentials or “badges”, with the uptake at three times the rate of historical data.

This passion is something that has long been thriving in the virtual engineering community with people taking it up themselves to share hacks, tips and, more recently, open-source face shield designs. Connecting those engineers working or experimenting at home during the pandemic is an invaluable driver of innovation and lays the groundwork for future collaboration.

Testing innovation

As the world has struggled to adapt to a new ‘normal’ – engineers have been forced to accelerate development times in order to respond to the challenges the world is facing.

For example, NI’s TestStand software was recently used by Belgian research specialist Flanders Make to help develop an infrared camera-based system that can measure the body temperature of employees as they enter an office environment. The technology can be used for the thermal screening of hundreds of people an hour, from a safe distance, to identify those individuals that might require additional temperature checks using a thermometer. Such innovation will be crucial as more people start to return to work.

But why should this new, nimble approach fade as the world starts to move beyond the current crisis? It is clear that test can and should be deployed quickly and from the very beginning of the development to ensure a speedy time to market and into the hands of the medical professionals saving lives.

Take, for example, pacemakers. Medtronic in Ireland makes 51 percent of the world’s pacemakers and is endeavouring to improve the lives of more than just a chosen few who have the means to access cutting-edge medical technologies. Each pacemaker requires around 10,000 electrical tests. Every single one of these test must be retrievable within 60 minutes for ten years. Without intuitive and integrated app, software and hardware test systems, this data burden can drive up production times and, crucially to patients – cost. With an effective test, Medtronic can be supported in its ambition to capture all cardiac pacing in a single device, driving down cost and dramatically widening availability.

Pivot to the future

What we have seen then, is that testing remains a major enabler of the fight against COVID-19. Engineers have been forced to change their working lives but, in the process, there has been a long list of innovations which demonstrate the power of engineering to make a tangible difference to the health of the world within a remarkably small timeframe.

Going forward, teams must be supported to engineer ambitiously and unhindered by ineffective test processes – allowing them to work collaboratively with healthcare colleagues to support patients and ultimately save lives.

Dave Wilson

As a business and technology fellow for the portfolio business, Dave Wilson oversees the group’s go-to-market program, which is responsible for more than half of the company’s revenue across a diverse set of industries and applications. Prior to this role, Wilson served as vice president of product marketing for software, customer education, and academics. Since joining NI in 1991, he has held several sales and marketing roles, including district sales manager, director of data acquisition marketing, international sales director, and director of international marketing.

 Wilson serves on the ECEDHA Corporate Member Council, is a member of the FIRST Executive Advisory Board, The University of Texas Longhorn Maker Studio Advisory Board, and the University of Houston College of Technology Industry Advisory Board. He is an avid maker, inventor, and evangelist for STEM activities and holds two patents. He  earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the State University of New York.

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