As the COVID-19 pandemic intensified early on, it became evident that health systems around the world would face a shortage of potentially life-saving ventilators in the coming weeks and months.

Full-featured ventilators cost tens of thousands of dollars, and as death rates rose exponentially in states such as New York in March, doctors were forced to make difficult decisions about who received access to this equipment. Although the federal government offered New York some assistance, Governor Andrew Cuomo pleaded it was too few to handle the dire situation: “What are we going to do with 400 ventilators when we need 30,000?” he asked reporters on March 24 (Forbes May 5, 2020).

A standard ventilator taking a year or longer, with thousands of parts requiring a complex global supply chain, was hardly a device that could be manufactured quickly and affordably. Consequently, an ad hoc team of engineers at...

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