As most of you already know, what makes Airing such a revolutionary product is its compact size. While CPAP treatment has already been established, vetted and proven effective, what makes using a traditional CPAP device unbearable is that it’s an eight pound machine complete with attached cords, hoses and a mask. How could a traditional CPAP device be replaced by something so simple and small yet be capable of producing equal results?
We’ve heard this question a lot since we unveiled the design of our prototype–in meetings with sleep apnea experts and scientists, on Facebook, from friends and family– it seems too good to be true. This question eventually led to the realization that, while the design makes physical and mathematical sense to its inventor and engineers, most of us cannot fathom how a device this small could deliver the requisite pressure to maintain airway patency for effective therapy.
To explain how this is possible, we have to start with a miniscule technology platform called MEMS, or micro-electro-mechanical systems. Paul Saffo, futurist and Director of the Institute for the Future, calls MEMS “the foundational technology of the next decade”. Also referred to as “Smart Matter”, MEMS evolved in the 80’s from the process technology in semiconductor device fabrication, and has become an increasingly popular option for product development in a variety of fields. Hearing aids, insulin pumps, and even the mobile phone in your pocket utilize this technology to improve functionality.
Most MEMS devices are composed of layers of polysilicon deposited on a substrate from which specific etchings are made, leaving a 3-D structure. This functionally-designed structure includes electrical components (known as sensors) that process environmental data while mechanical elements (known as actuators) act in response to that data– an amazingly complete system within an impressively small chip. An example of how this technology is applied is found in car airbags. MEMS sensors can determine the specific deceleration in force representative of a crash and alert the actuators to immediately deploy the airbag. The tiny MEMS devices are sensitive and compact enough to respond instantly and effectively.
The majority of MEMs devices range from 20 micrometers to 1 millimeter (0.02 mm to 1 mm). For reference, human hair is about 0.1 mm thick. Take a look at the image below: an example of a MEMS device (not a part of Airing) taken using a SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope). SEMs take photos using the shorter wavelengths of electrons to get a better resolution than is possible using only light, which is made up of longer wavelengths.
Beyond being fascinatingly small, there are plenty of reasons to use MEMS over other macro structures. First, choosing to employ MEMS can significantly reduce the cost of production because they can be made using the same fabrication techniques used in the integrated circuit (aka computer chip) industry. Also, MEMS are often composed of a material that is inexpensive, high-quality, readily available, long-lasting, and highly receptive to electronic functionality. And, there are fewer parts to manufacture, buy, and integrate into the product. These micro-systems can adapt to fulfill a diverse range of needs, from pumping very small, precise doses of insulin into the body, to steering entire aircrafts based on airflow changes on the wings.
All of this leads us to the birth of the concept of Airing, when its inventor-to-be Stephen Marsh, who was very familiar with MEMS, had an “Aha!” moment. After speaking with his brother, David, who was noncompliant with his CPAP treatment, Stephen realized that MEMS technology might be utilized to provide equivalent CPAP therapy in the form of a tiny “micro-CPAP device.” And not only that, using MEMS would allow Airing to perform a repeated bellows-like action over a long period of time without fatigue and with energy-efficient electrostatic actuation.
Marsh also realized that this technology could enable Airing to:
Shrink traditional CPAP mechanics down to the size of a grain of salt without sacrificing the treatment CPAP provides.
Speed the time-to-market by employing a more efficient supply chain and simplified design.
Keep costs down since each device will contain such a small amount of relatively inexpensive material.
Integrate electronics into the micro-structures for collecting and retrieving important user data to improve therapy.
Produce three million of these micro-pumps in one minute using a Roll-to-Roll manufacturing process.
Fast forward to where we are now–our proof of concept prototype phase of development. We’re continuing to identify and locate the most appropriate materials, equipment, engineering firms, and experts to help us turn our design into reality. Once we have it built, we will begin testing to make sure it is fully capable of delivering the right amount of pressure, with the right amount of power, for a long enough period of time. We are excited to communicate our technical developments (as much as we can while safeguarding our Intellectual Property) so that you can observe the development of this innovation alongside us.
If you think this tiny technology is as cool as we do, we encourage you to do your own research, share your thoughts, and invite your friends to follow us as well. We want to continue to grow a bigger community around this small device to change the lives of sleep apnea sufferers forever.
In the coming weeks, we will have a peek at a part of the micro-structures we are building from our own SEM to share with you. Stay tuned.
More info on MEMS:
What is MEMS Technology?:
Examples of MEMS in everyday use: