Grad students collaborating to improve incubator design

Master of Architecture students at Texas A&M are teaming with graduate students in industrial engineering to improve the psychosocial and engineering aspects of the incubator, the central piece of equipment used in neonatal intensive care units.

Robert White, director of the Regional Newborn program at Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Ind., asked Mardelle McCuskey Shepley, professor of architecture and director of Texas A&M’s Center for Health Systems and Design, if students in her design studio would be interested in making improvements to incubators.

“He said incubator design hasn’t changed changed significantly over the years,” said Shepley, who is a member of the committee on Recommended Standards for Newborn Intensive Care, led by Dr. White.

Shepley’s designers are working with students led by Tom Ferris, assistant professor of industrial and operations engineering, who has experience in medical equipment design.

The design students are aiming to lessen the “industrial” aspect of incubators, while the engineering students are looking at improving incubators’ alarm systems and ergonomics; for example, making it easier for hospital staff to access the baby in the incubator.

“Parents may be frightened when they walk into a neonatal intensive care unit for the first time and see their baby in a plastic case with tubes and wires everywhere,” said Shepley. “It can be very unsettling and intimidating.”

Shepley’s students are exploring ways to relegate incubators’ mass of wires and tubes to one area, making it easier to see the baby inside, and ways parents can customize the device, such as creating a panel where they can put their baby’s photo and name on the incubator.

“These design features might help parents make stronger attachments to their children, rather than making them feel like their child has been kidnapped by a machine,” said Shepley. “If the design and engineering students can make it easier to move the baby in and out of the incubator, the mother’s stress level might diminish, which would make breast feeding easier.”

“Breast feeding, she continued, “is something you have to be calm and relaxed to do, especially when you are concerned about the frailty of your baby.”

Students toured the neonatal ICU at St. Joseph’s Hospital in College Station and have an incubator on loan from General Electric in the studio for the project.

“It is a very expensive piece of equipment and it was generous of GE to have loaned it to us for the project,” said Shepley. “It helps to have the incubator in the design studio and to be able to examine the equipment while investigating alternative designs.”Ferris’ students are working with a preliminary design created by Shepley’s students.

“What’s likely to happen is they’re going to slam a lot of what we did,” she said, adding that she once designed a building with an atrium in the middle, but mechanical engineers thought the space was a great place for an air conditioning system.

It’s part of the collaborative process that also happens in professional practice, she said, adding that her students will eventually negotiate back and forth with the engineering students before a final design is submitted.

“Whether you’re doing a little piece of equipment or a whole building you have to collaborate with engineers and other consultants,” she said, adding that her students have said the collaboration has been the most interesting part of the project so far.

The students are scheduled to deliver a final design to White before Thanksgiving.

Shepley and White will be presenting the project at the 2012 Annual Gravens Conference on the Physical and Developmental Environment of the High-Risk Infant in Clearwater, Fla.

posted September 29, 2011