Great ideas are oftentimes born from the unlikeliest of places. However, if you are a plumbing fixture designer, tapping a revolutionary idea from a hospital sink is not as strange as it may seem.
This was the case for Chris McLeod, who read a disturbing story a few years ago about contaminated sink drains blamed for in-hospital transmission of infectious outbreaks in Toronto, causing numerous deaths. These antibiotic-resistant superbugs survive in the drainpipes, making their way into the sink and exposing those in the room to potentially life-threatening diseases.
McLeod is an R&D product designer for OS&B, based in Oakville and the only wholly Canadian-owned plumbing and drain manufacturer. After devising a new type of drain set—one that would be both antimicrobial and easy for hospital staff to clean—McLeod teamed up with a leading Toronto infectious disease specialist to conduct research. He then enlisted expertise from the McMaster Manufacturing Research Institute (MMRI) to improve the manufacturability and functionality of the u-bend (commonly known as the P-trap) part of the device.
A sink trap is required on all drains to prevent toxic sewer gases from entering the room by capturing water in the fixture. Paradoxically, while the P-trap hinders sewer gases, this standing water can also harbour bacterial growth, which can breed up into the sink. A single splash of water sends the menacing microorganisms into the hospital room—particularly dangerous for immune-compromising units, such as neonatal, intensive care, transplant and burn.
“We had a patent for a detachable P-trap, and originally went to McMaster University for their metallurgical expertise to help with this unique antimicrobial alloy, which is challenging to machine,” says McLeod. “As it turns out, their research team ended up helping me develop an even more efficient detaching method from my original design.”
OS&B’s innovative P-trap design uses four sealing clips for easy removal and cleaning by any housecleaning staff. McLeod explains that with standard drain sets, a wrench, applying torque to break the solder, is needed, but frequently ends up breaking the joint seals within the wall. It is not uncommon for hospitals to resort to ripping out all the pipes from inside the wall while attempting to remove the offending microbes from the sink drainpipe.
In Canada each year, more than 220,000 hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) result in 8,000 deaths, and according to some estimates, the direct cost of each HAI is approximately $25,000 per patient.
This important project is possible through MMRI thanks to funding from the Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation (SONAMI), a Niagara College-led consortium supported by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario). Niagara College last year received a $7.3 million FedDev grant to create the SONAMI alliance, a single-window approach to supporting manufacturers’ research and development needs, encouraging them to adopt and integrate disruptive technologies into their operations.
“I don’t know what I would have done without McMaster,” insists McLeod. “The SONAMI funding is a great opportunity for engineers and designers to share their projects and get improvements without hiring new engineers.”
MMRI’s functionality improvements has also meant positive projections for the future. “I would be disappointed if this device wasn’t five percent of our sales within the year of launching,” predicts McLeod, adding that since all parts are fabricated in Ontario, it spells good news for the machining and casting subcontractors.
OS&B is selling the devices upon request, but will not push for market entry until the end of its year-long gold-seal research within seven GTA hospitals, McLeod says.
The MMRI is one of the largest university-based manufacturing research institutes in Canada, supporting academic research and education programs spanning many manufacturing processes. The institute’s core focus is on enhancing productivity, quality and product/process innovation, while helping companies reduce costs. For information about the SONAMI funding, contact [email protected] or visit online at www.eng.mcmaster.ca/mcmaster-manufacturing-research-institute-mmri.