How the University of Minnesota and Digi-Key Quickly Designed Ventilators for COVID-19 Use

The University of Minnesota and Digi-Key Electronics collaborated to rapidly design and make available a simple, basic ventilator that can be manufactured quickly and inexpensively to help novel coronavirus sufferers. The effort is one of many currently afoot from the likes of Dyson, Medtronic, Ford, GE, GM, and others that brings hope to those fighting on the front lines in medical facilities across the globe that they will be able to meet the needs of their patients.

How the Univ. of Minnesota ventilator (Figure 1) came into being and moved rapidly from concept to reality is a fascinating story of ingenuity, cross-discipline, and inter-company collaboration in a time of crisis. It is but one example of many, but here is how it started and developed.

Figure 1: The design of the ventilator developed by the University of Minnesota in collaboration with Digi-Key Electronics began on March 15. (Image source: Aaron Tucker, Univ. of Minnesota)

Univ. of Minnesota Anesthesiology fellow, Dr. Steve Richardson, began crafting a low-cost emergency ventilator around March 15, sourcing equipment and resources from biomedical engineer friends and other private companies.

Dr. Richardson spoke to one of his friends who is a biomedical engineer about the project and proceeded to the operating room at the University to try some ideas out while researching a 1950s-era textbook to see what types of designs would be feasible for a quick and simple ventilator. Just a few hours later he had a simple, but fully working prototype that would do the job.

He called several companies and told them that he was an anesthesiologist working on this simple ventilator to aid in the COVID-19 outbreak, and he asked to speak to the CEOs. He received help from various private companies with equipment manufacturing and engineering expertise.

If the FDA gives its approval, Richardson could begin scaling production very quickly. It looks like they will be able to produce thousands of these in a matter of about three weeks. The cost will be only a small percentage of a standard hospital ventilator.

I have heard some people say that they would never want to be on a “cheap” ventilator. Personally, I would rather have something simple and basic rather than nothing at all if it came to that point.

As it turns out, Dr. Richardson’s design is similar to the ones used in many ambulances (Figure 2). However, instead of someone manually squeezing the bag to ventilate the patient and keep them alive, the pumping action is controlled electronically and implemented mechanically.

Figure 2: The new ventilator is similar to a manual ventilator commonly used in an ambulance, but the pumping action is mechanical. (Image source: Ambu USA)

In the process of researching this post, I was able to get in contact with Aaron Tucker, a Lab Supervisor/Technical Development Coordinator at the Earl E. Bakken Medical Devices Center. Aaron is a Mechanical Engineering PhD Candidate working on Dr. Richardson’s program. (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Lab Supervisor/Technical Development coordinator Aaron Tucker with a prototype of their ventilator (Image source: Aaron Tucker, Univ. of Minnesota)

Aaron Tucker graciously agreed to a quick Q&A about the program, how Digi-Key got involved, and how the program has progressed:

Steve Taranovich: What led to the choice of Digi-Key for acquiring the needed components? Will they be the only supplier?

Aaron Tucker: We have a collection of companies we’ve worked closely with over the past couple of weeks including Digi-Key, Teknic, Protolabs, Electronic Systems Inc., MGC Diagnostics, and the UMN Medical School.

For Digi-Key, we already knew about their vast JIT [just in time] capabilities, and we made a great connection with Randall Restle early on. Their turnaround has been remarkable in these past couple weeks, and we could not have made our first 25 prototypes without them.

Steve Taranovich: Who will assemble these? Where will they be assembled?

Aaron Tucker: We are collaborating with a number of local Minnesota medical device companies to manufacture and assemble these in their Minnesota facilities.

Steve Taranovich: How about the cost? Who will pay for these?

Aaron Tucker: Until we complete our manufacturability design review, we are still unsure about the cost.

Steve Taranovich: How many are you planning to build?

Aaron Tucker: The demand for these ventilators is still unknown. Some projections have entered into the hundreds of thousands for the US alone. As this is an ever-changing situation, our goal is to very quickly provide thousands, and re-evaluate the US demand at that point.

Steve Taranovich: Are there plans to give the design to others so they can help build these? Maybe other universities?

Aaron Tucker: We plan on setting up an open-source license through the University of Minnesota. We want to provide a design which can be manufactured even by places with less expensive, high-end equipment. Hopefully, we can arrive at a design which will be able to be manufactured in other countries with less available capital equipment.

Steve Taranovich: How long would it take to complete a unit in production?

Aaron Tucker: We hope to know this information within the next week.

Steve Taranovich: Who inspects the finished product? How will they be tested?

Aaron Tucker: The manufacturing company will be performing testing and inspection.

Keeping ventilator designs moving

Figure 4: According to Kari Jesme, a sales manager at Digi-Key Electronics, the company’s sales, engineering, value-add, distribution, and application support teams are working with the Univ. of Minnesota and many others supporting the need for ventilators across the country. (Image source: Digi-Key Electronics)

From Digi-Key’s perspective, the collaboration is part of an on-going effort to support healthcare workers on the front lines both directly through local outreach efforts in its home town of Thief River Falls, as well as indirectly by helping supply the Univ. of Minnesota team and the many others working to develop ventilators with the electronic components, hardware, and technical support they need.

“DKE is doing many things in coordination with our existing customers, suppliers and our internal team to make sure that we can support as many people as we possibly can,” said Kari Jesme, Digi-Key Electronics’ Sales Manager for the Central US and Mexico (Figure 4).

“Our sales team has worked with many of our customers who are supporting the need for ventilators across the country, some who normally manufacture these devices, as well as the many others, like the Univ. of Minnesota, who have stepped up and are now using their facilities to support the cause.”

It’s a massive, company-wide undertaking that’s indicative of the sea-change occurring globally. For example:

  • Digi-Key’s value-add department is making cable assemblies to support multiple orders in the ranges of 10K at a time and up.
  • Its supplier team is working diligently with suppliers to maintain the supply of parts to support the additional need and is having daily conversations to try to access even more of the highly used components in these devices.
  • The engineering team has stepped up to work multiple channels and opportunities to find alternative components where needed or to possibly provide additional sources and assist with complete designs.
  • That same team is supporting customers with existing designs along with some new designs and helping to facilitate quick design to production—sometimes within days.

“We had a customer in need of parts this last weekend to get some working examples by today for a ventilator,” said Jesme. “We were able to work with the PDC [Product Distribution Center] to get the order picked yesterday and the customer came and picked them up and they have a running sample today. They worked very closely with one of our AE’s [application engineers] on the selection of parts.”

Along with cabling, these products include power supplies, encoders, and connectors.

“Our [components] stock position, the value-add services, the relationships we have on both the supplier and customer side of the business, along with our amazing product distribution team and the relationships we have with our logistics partners to deliver much-needed components in this very necessary time, make us very thankful that we can do our little part to help in the fight of this pandemic.”

The many companies working to deliver ventilators in quantity include Dyson, of vacuum cleaner fame. The founder, James Dyson, got a direct call from the U.K.’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, asking for help. Within 10 days he and his team had designed the CoVent. Others now working on developing ventilators on a massive global scale include Medtronic, Ford, GE, and GM, just to mention a few.


I am so proud of the creativity and design collaboration of these doctors, engineers, technicians, manufacturers, and distributors who have stepped up to help during a major global crisis. The virus does not recognize business plans or borders and has disrupted home life and endangered too many to count at this time. However, it has also brought out the best of who we are as people, and for that there is much to be thankful.

About this author

Image of Steve Taranovich

Steve Taranovich is a freelance technical writer with 47 years of experience in the electronics industry. He received an MSEE from Polytechnic University, Brooklyn, New York, and his BEEE from New York University, Bronx, New York. He was also chairman of the Educational Activities Committee for IEEE Long Island. Presently an Eta Kappa Nu Member and an IEEE Life Senior Member. His expertise is in analog, RF and power management with a diverse embedded processing education as it relates to analog design from his years at Burr-Brown and Texas Instruments.

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