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Research / Discovery

Smoothing out the bumps for infants

August 10, 2010

Six women undergraduate engineering students at Colorado State devoted their senior year to perfecting a neonatal transport system, a design that earned them first place at the 2009 Engineering Days.

Engineering alumnae (from left) Jennifer McHenry, Stacy Hill, Jennifer Serrao, Daphen Pino, Amy Hermundstad,and Nicole Ward discuss their work with a judge at Engineering Days.

Better protect fragile newborns

There is no thrill quite like bringing a newborn baby home from the hospital. But for some parents, moving an infant can be an exercise in anxiety if the baby has medical conditions or otherwise requires extraordinary care.

Incubators developed in the 1950s helped transport infants less than a month old, called neonates, but neonatologists still lobbied for improvements to better protect babies.

Problems with existing incubators

To answer that call, six women undergraduate engineering students at Colorado State devoted their senior year to perfecting a neonatal transport system, a design that earned them first place at CSU’s 2009 Engineering Days.

The team began by researching existing transport incubators and meeting with neonatal specialists at various hospitals. Poudre Valley Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit was the first stop for the students to study problems with existing incubators.

Rough ride

“A Flight for Life team took us on individual ride-alongs with patients,” says Nicole Ward, who researched incubator design, material selection, and noise reduction. “I was slightly nauseous from the rough ride, so that showed us how much work we had to do.”

“We talked with nurses and a neonatalogist and observed some of the units they used in the hospitals to identify problems,” says Jennifer Serrao, who led the project’s thermal control studies.

Economical, safer product

The team focused on design, construction, and testing of a prototype that could be used in both rich and poor countries. The goal was to produce a safer product that was:

  • less expensive
  • easier to use
  • energy efficient

Vibration can cause brain damage, bruises, discomfort

Stabilization of infants during transport was a primary concern. “Vibration was a major problem medical staff identified with existing transport devices, and that’s what we found with our own tests,” Serrao says. Vibration from road surfaces, ventilation machines, and other equipment impairs monitoring during transport and can cause brain damage, bruises, and discomfort to infants.

“Neonates, particularly when premature, are very tetchy – even too much light can upset them. So we needed a design that met even the smallest details of comfort while creating a much safer system,” Ward says.

Significant improvements recommended

Although the 2008-2009 team worked with a meager $2,000 budget, the improvements they recommended are significant and will add to manufacturing costs. Current transport units cost $300,000, keeping them out of reach for some users.

The 2009-2010 team has focused on a new, low-cost design for developing and newly industrialized countries. That small initial investment, combined with the energy, creativity, and enthusiasm of a dedicated group of engineering seniors, has good potential to help our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

Excerpt from story originally published in 'Human Health', a publication by the College of Engineering, Spring 2010.