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Baby's hot wheels: An incubator made of car parts

Some four million babies around the world die within a month of their birth, according to the World Health Organization. But one designer who's trying to get working incubators to developing countries says as many as 1.8 million of those infants might be spared if they could spend just a week in the units, which help babies who are born early or at low birth weights regulate their body temperature until their organs fully develop.

In developing countries where infant mortality is most common, high-tech machines donated by richer nations often conk out when the electricity fizzles or is restricted to conserve power. Designers in Massachusetts are trying to solve that problem, using car parts that are easy to come by — and are therefore fixable by auto mechanics — in even the most remote regions of the world, the New York Times reports today. Two nonprofits in the state, the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT) and Design That Matters, have spent a combined $300,000 developing an incubator prototype that they hope to roll out within the next 18 months. The goal is to get the price down to less than $1,000 — a fraction of the $30,000 or more price tag of typical incubators, says Timothy Prestero, Design That Matters' founder and CEO.

We were curious to learn more about this car-part incubator, so we asked Prestero to explain how it works.

Some incubator parts—where the baby lies, casters in the front for braking and steering, and a chrome handrail for carrying — are standard issue, he says.

But after that, the car parts come in. The incubator prototype functions using electricity, but has a motorcycle battery as a backup in case the lights go out. Car headlights generate heat, and an HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) fan blows it around. An engine-intake filter removes dust, bugs and pathogens. Latches and gas springs have been repurposed to open the incubator hood. BMX tires help maneuver the incubator over rough floors (hospitals in developing countries may not have smooth floors), and the bassinet portion is detachable, to transport the baby up the stairs when there are no elevators.

Lastly, turn signals function as visual alarms if the baby is in trouble. "It sounds goofy," Prestero says, "but they're cheap and designed to be seen from far away." 

Incubator prototype courtesy of Design that Matters

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