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Manufacturing / Critical care

Rapid scale-up of ventilators for UK coronavirus patients underway

By Andrew Sansom 30 Mar 2020 0

The UK Government insists it is stepping up its procurement of vital ventilators for patients with coronavirus and is working with a number of British suppliers and manufacturers to rapidly scale up their production.

To date, there are more than 8000 ventilators available to NHS patients, with another 8000 expected from existing UK and international manufacturers in the next few weeks. Prime Minister Boris Johnson appealed to manufacturers earlier this month to help produce new ventilators, and a wide range of UK and international businesses responded to offer services, including designing and building new devices, manufacturing components, or transporting them to NHS hospitals.

The Government announced last week that it had partnered a number of the UK’s leading technology and engineering firms with smaller manufacturers to rapidly build existing, modified or newly designed ventilators at speed, with seven priority projects underway. Work is ongoing to improve the speed at which current UK ventilator manufacturers can produce their devices, with larger companies changing their existing operations to help deliver extra equipment. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has assured the companies involved in the consortium that his Department will ensure that regulatory bodies are able to process new devices and approve those that meet the requirements as soon as possible.

Aerospace, engineering and Formula One racing companies are among the many names involved in these projects. Firms include: High Value Manufacturing Catapult, Meggitt, Ford, GKN Aerospace, Babcock, Plexus, Siemens, Siemens Healthineers, McLaren, Rolls Royce, Airbus, Renault F1, PA Consulting, Renishaw, GE Healthcare Systems, Smiths Group PLC, Hass, Red Bull Racing, Mercedes, Williams, Racing Point, Thales, Microsoft, BAE Systems, Accenture, Penlon and PTC.

The Government also says it’s working with many other UK manufacturers to build, design and develop new effective, safe and easy-to-build ventilators. Government officials are working with expert clinicians and health regulators to test all new machine designs, to ensure patient safety standards are upheld. Any new orders are all dependent on machines passing regulatory tests, but the Government insists work in this regard is being conducted at pace.

Dyson delivery

Vacuum cleaner company Dyson is one name to have confirmed receipt of an order of a newly made ventilator (see image above, courtesy of Dyson), which will need to be approved by the health regulator. According to the Reuters news agency, Dyson said it had deployed its expertise in air movement, motors, power systems, manufacturing and supply chain, and had been working around the clock with medical technology and development company TTP – The Technology Partnership. JCB, best known for manufacturing equipment for construction, agriculture, waste handling, and demolition, said it’s ready to begin manufacturing special steel housings for the new Dyson ventilator. The first prototypes have been delivered, built at JCB’s cab factory in Uttoxeter. 

The company’s chair, Lord Bamford, said: “When we were approached by the prime minister we were determined, as a British company, to help in any way we could. This project has gone from design to production in just a matter of days and I’m delighted that we have been able to deploy the skills of our talented engineering, design and fabrication teams so quickly at a time of national crisis. This is also a global crisis, of course, and we will naturally help with the production of more housings if these ventilators are eventually required by other countries.”

Babcock, which is involved in the consortium effort, said it had joined forces with a leading medical equipment company to design, manufacture and supply thousands of ventilators to the NHS. 

It said a team of its engineers and other specialists have worked round the clock to develop a supply chain solution to produce the ventilators, adding that positive input from the Cabinet Office had also facilitated engagement with a panel of leading clinical experts, including London’s Royal Brompton Hospital. 

With the race against time to save lives, a fully functional prototype with the focus on simplified ventilation principles, and thereby fewer parts, has been created in a matter of days, while meeting strict clinical requirements, said the firm. 

“This is a critical time for the country as a whole and for the NHS in particular,” said Jon Hall, managing director of technology for Babcock. “When the opportunity arose for us to get involved in helping the NHS to save lives, we knew it was the right thing to do. I’m really proud of the commitment and innovation of everyone in the team, across Babcock and our medical and supply chain partners.

“Combining our engineering expertise with advances in medical technology has resulted in a solution that will help the NHS save lives. That capability, combined with a diverse supply chain will ensure that we can get this equipment manufactured, processed and delivered as a matter of urgency.”

It emerged last week that one company willing to respond to the Government’s appeal had been advised not to go ahead with production. Gtech, which designs and manufactures cordless home and garden appliances, including vacuum cleaners, said it had been ready to answer the Government’s call but were later advised against proceeding.

Nick Grey, Gtech chief executive, said he was contacted by the Government’s chief commercial officer in the early hours of 15 March.

“At first I thought it was a hoax – being asked if I could assist in making up to 30,000 medical ventilators in as little as two weeks” said Nick. “When I realised that this was a genuine need, I felt compelled to help.”

Grey spent the day learning how ventilators worked and immediately tasked Gtech’s engineering and model-making team to tackle the challenge. 

“We designed the ventilator entirely from parts that can readily be made from stock materials or bought off-the-shelf. This means that Gtech ventilators can be made by almost any engineering and manufacturing company around the world” he said.

A video of the ventilator working was presented to the Government and NHS on 20 March. But last week, the Government selected other partners for the ventilator project.

“I was flattered to be asked to help,” said Grey. “Our ventilator was simplistic, as we were serious about meeting the timescales. We could have mass produced from 26 March onwards. In the end, I believe the clinicians felt that a more sophisticated design was required. It was great to be involved and we received amazing encouragement and thanks for our efforts. I wouldn’t hesitate to help again if I could in future.”

The company has nevertheless taken the decision to make public the design details of the medical ventilator, which it says could be manufactured in a matter of days for emergency use. Grey told the Worcester News: “We will still complete and publish our design as there has been a lot of interest for it from around the world.”

In separate news, a group including Mercedes Formula One, University College London, and University College London Hospital said it had developed a new version of a breathing aid that could help coronavirus patients. It is now reportedly being trialled in hospitals.