Low-cost, inflatable incubator wins Dyson award

November 10, 2014

An inexpensive, inflatable incubator for use in the developing world has won this year's James Dyson Award. Design engineer James Roberts, a recent graduate of Loughborough University, and his team will receive £30,000 ($47,600) to continue prototyping and testing MOM, as the incubator is called, and ultimately bring it to market as early as 2017. The university will receive £10,000 ($15,800) from the Dyson Foundation, as part of the prize package.

A documentary about Syrian refugees motivated Roberts to develop a portable incubator. "[The documentary] had a segment about how there are loads of premature kids dying because of the stresses of war and, specifically, the lack of incubators out there and the infrastructure to support them," Roberts told the BBC. According to the World Health Organization, 75% of deaths resulting from premature birth could be avoided if inexpensive treatments were more readily available.

James Roberts, Dyson Award winner
James Roberts with his inflatable incubator.

MOM is made of a sheet of plastic containing inflatable transparent panels that are blown up manually and then heated by a ceramic element. This wraps around the interior of the unit to keep a newborn warm. An Arduino computer is used to keep the temperature stable, control humidity, and manage a phototherapy lamp that can be used to treat jaundice. An alarm sounds if the desired temperature changes.

It won't come as a surprise to PlasticsToday readers that 3D-printing technology played a critical role during the prototyping phase. "Specifically, [it allowed me] to make a custom heater and fan holders to test all the technology inside the incubator," Roberts told PlasticsToday. "Without 3D printing, it would have taken me months to make these pieces by hand and I wouldn't have been able to complete the product."

Roberts shared some of the key design challenges of the project with PlasticsToday.

Developing the aforementioned heaters took a particular effort. "I tried many methods of heating, from using resistance wire wrapped around pipes so they don't freeze to making my own out of springs and copper pipes," said Roberts. "This was quite dangerous and I do not recommend it, as I nearly electrocuted myself! I landed on ceramic heaters as the best choice through testing."

Getting the inflatable piece manufactured also proved difficult. "Not many companies could do it for me," he said. Eventually he did find a company that "created a custom piece of good quality that meant I could complete my product," said Roberts.

MOM's collapsible architecture, with all of the electronics and the inflatable material fitting inside the housing, is a crucial design element, as it makes it possible to ship the device in currently used care packages. Shipping bulky conventional incubators adds to the already considerable cost of the device.

Roberts built an electronic prototype, which demonstrated that the incubator could easily maintain the correct environment for the child, as well as a functional prototype to show that a newborn could fit comfortably inside the unit. Controls have been kept simple to allow nonmedical staff to successfully operate the unit. It can run off a range of power sources, such as a car battery, for 24 hours in case of power outages.

The outer shells are created from high-impact polystyrene, as they were originally vacuum formed, said Roberts, and were sufficiently strong in their molded form to allow transportation. The inflatable component is made from a thick flexible PVC. "This meant it was durable whilst in use and that all the current methods of sterilisation for incubators could still be used," he added.

The finished product may be vacuum formed or, if there is enough interest, injection molded, said Roberts. "Obviously, if it's the latter, I will need to look over my plastic choice again and see which one is most suitable."

Now, Roberts finds himself at a crossroads, albeit with some welcome financial help from the Dyson Foundation. "The next step is either to go along with this myself or try to get some investors on board and design a product that can be easily manufactured. I really want to make this into a reality, as I personally believe that it could help some children less fortunate than I am," says Roberts. 

The MOM incubator would cost around £250 ($400), according to Roberts, a fraction of the cost of conventional systems, which run approximately £30,000 ($47,600).

Founded by British inventor Sir James Dyson, best known for his eponymous line of vacuum cleaners, the James Dyson Award is an international student design award, organised and run by the James Dyson Foundation charitable trust. For more information about the program, go to jamesdysonaward.org.

And to learn more about the MOM incubator and, should you be so inclined, help Roberts realize his vision, go to momincubators.com.

Norbert Sparrow

Norbert Sparrow is Senior Editor at PlasticsToday. Follow him on twitter @norbertcsparrow and Google+.

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