The pandemic of 1918 raced around the globe, killing at least 50 million worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection. Nearly 675,000 of those deaths occurred in the United States. The H1N1 virus, also called the Spanish flu, was first observed in Europe, the United States, and parts of Asia.
In a now familiar ordeal, people were required to wear masks. Businesses, schools, and theaters were shuttered, as hospitals were overrun with flu patients.1 There is no universal consensus as to where the pandemic started, but in the United States, it was first identified in military personnel in the spring of 1918.
The similarities between the pandemic of 1918 and the 2020 coronavirus pandemic are eerie. There is, however, one other similarity that generates optimism. The Spanish flu sparked a wave of innovation to help stop the spread of communicable diseases. The same trend seems to be occurring in response to the coronavirus.
“Pandemics have ravaged civilizations through history,” Glenn McDonald wrote on History.com last June. “But global health crises have sparked progress in culture and society, changing lives for the better. Water and sanitations systems improved, and revelations led to innovations in limiting disease spread as well as in treatments and vaccines.”2
Some innovations began before the pandemic and saw swift growth. Others were tied directly to the pandemic. They incorporated different technology and came in all shapes and sizes. The most important takeaway, though, is that innovation will never be a pandemic casualty.
Using Ultraviolet Light
The products that help stop the spread of communicable diseases range from simple to sophisticated. Some are large, others are small, some are costly, and others are quite inexpensive. They all play a piece in supporting a global fight.
One strategy many businesses found during the pandemic to help stop the spread of communicable diseases was the use of ultraviolet light. CleanSlate UV, which is headquartered in Toronto, ON, Canada, uses UV light to reduce germs on mobile devices. The business was founded in 2014 but saw its sales soar last year. Its year-over-year growth grew by 1,200 percent, and its products sanitized more than 60,000,000 mobile devices.
While CleanSlate UV’s products are used extensively in the medical industry, it branched out last year to include retail, hospital, pharma, and long-term care. It even installed three devices at Albany International Airport in New York to sanitize portable devices along with watches, keys, identification badges, and small tools.
“Smartphones are the third hand we never clean, and COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on that,’’ Taylor Mann, CleanSlate UV co-founder and CEO, said in a press release. “It’s exciting to work with a broader range of clients, from retailers to airports, to implement modern safety protocols.”3
CleanSlate UV’s sanitizers can eradicate 99.998 percent of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in 20 seconds, and do so without harsh, damaging chemicals. Some studies have discovered that approximately 94 percent of cell phones used by hospital staff bore contaminants.
“We wanted a product that had intuitive design,” says Manjunath Anand, chief technology officer for CleanSlate UV. “Infection prevention at any facility begins with staff and visitors. To enable use of UV systems, simplicity and ease of use is important. An ideal UV system requires no training, allows easy integration into workflow, and doesn’t require visitors to be trained.”
Other businesses quickly jumped on the ultraviolet bandwagon. “Since early March, there’s been just an enormous amount of interest in (germicidal ultraviolet technology), and research funding to institutions around the world,’’ Jim Malley, PhD, told WebMD.com in May 2020.4
Ultraviolet light technology has been used for decades, but the coronavirus ushered in a new era of technological advancements.
New Technologies Drive Advances
Another sophisticated solution that helps stop the spread of communicable diseases is an automated food preparation device designed by Dexai Robotics. Called Alfred 2.0, the unit allows for hands-free ordering that can be placed through any device with an internet connection. The robot also includes a subsystem for utensils.
While not designed specifically to help slow the spread of viruses, the device nonetheless offers a critical safety component. “The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the way that we eat,” says Justin Rooney, a mechanical engineer on the Dexai team. “Hands-free orders reduce human proximity and contact with Alfred 2.0, thus reducing the chance of transferring pathogens.”
The unit is part of a trend in the food service industry toward the use of more automation. The design includes a robot, two areas to hold tools, a kitchen display system, bowl passing arm, an enclosure for electronics, and two refrigeration units.
Similarly, a hands-free door opener helps stop the spread of viruses even though it was not the original design intent. Designed by New York-based MYT Wares, the primary design objective was to make it easier for people carrying items such as briefcases, heavy boxes or even coffee to open doors without touching handles. As the pandemic escalated, MYT Wares accelerated the design process.
“There are a lot of people who do not like to touch door handles,’’ says Etienne Sauret of MYT Wares. “We were already in the design process. We thought it was important to come up with something in response to the pandemic.”
Even face shields evolved during the pandemic. While masks help, face shields ae more durable and provide better protection. Although they are far less elaborate than some of the more sophisticated devices, they play an important part in stopping the spread of disease.
The common theme in each of the applications is that they all include components from igus, the Germany-based manufacturer of motion plastics. All of the igus products are different in each application, but the self-lubricating, long-lasting qualities of the tribologically optimized polymers play an important role in each product.
CleanSlate UV’s sanitizer includes linear guides that slide, instead of roll and are a cost-effective and highly flexible installation option. The igus Drylin W guides are resistant to dirt and dust due to dry operation and are typically used in agricultural machinery, vehicle construction, packaging, furniture, and robotics.
“We used roller stainless steel bearings, but due to the metal contact between the ball bearings and guide, the carriage made noise that was beyond the acceptable limits in the hospital settings,’’ Anand says. “Furthermore, the friction caused due to non-rolling motions would result in more work for the motor, adding stress to the system.”
Dexai’s Alfred 2.0 includes a slewing ring and used an igus 3D printer filament to create custom two-part bearings that are used as a cable manage solution beneath the main robot garment. “Traditionally, a solution like this would be prohibitively expensive,” says Cody Chu, Dexai’s design leader of the project. “This has been transformed thanks to igus’ robust selection of wear-resistant printer filaments. Limiting movement of cables on a 6–7 DOF robot arm to a predictable motion is a challenging problem in robotics.”
The door opener uses shafts and bearings and were selected because of their low coefficient of friction. “This assembly basically answered three core questions for us,’’ Sauret says. “The ability to go up and down, to rotate, and to do so without sound.”
igus, whose North American headquarters is based in Rhode Island, supported an initiative last year to donate face shields to students in Germany and the United States. The face shields included a 3D printed plastic strap to hold a replaceable sheet of plastic film. The face shields provide additional protection, especially for the eyes, and guard against the natural instinct to touch the face and thus come into close contact with the virus.
Pandemics and Innovation
The Black Death pandemic in the 14th century lasted more than 100 years and killed nearly 50 percent of the population in Europe. It also led to the innovation of clocks, eyeglasses, quarantines, and the control of movement of people and goods. Many public health measures still employed today started in that era.5
The 1918 pandemic led to a rethinking of public health policies. Many European nations established centralized healthcare systems, and the U.S. adopted employer-based plans. Access to healthcare increased across the globe after that pandemic.
While innovation is hardly new in response to a pandemic, the measures by which businesses respond have grown more sophisticated, more technology driven, and in an information age, more focused on reliable data.
Just as important, the cycle has not yet run its course. Innovation has already started, but the next few years will undoubtedly lead to even more products that can be used to help stop the spread in future pandemics.
- Eds., “Spanish Flu,” May 19, 2020.
- G. McDonald, “5 Advances That Followed Pandemics,” July 15 , 2020.
- “CleanSlate UV Provides Update on Staggering Market Demand and 2020 Company Momentum,” Jan. 20, 2021.
- L. Kalter, “Coronavirus Puts UV in the Disinfectant Spotlight,” May 19, 2020.
- E. Larson, “Innovation In The Age Of Pandemics,” PMtimes, July 29, 2020.
This article was written by Thomas Renner, who writes on engineering, building, construction, and other trade industry topics for publications throughout the United States. For more information on igus, visit here .