Industry steps up

The crisis facing the globe as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic has meant engineers and engineering have been at the forefront of the fight against it. Paul Fanning reports.

As things stand, it is hard to imagine positives from the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, it almost seems vaguely distasteful to do so given the havoc that it is wreaking on people’s health and welfare across the globe.

However, if there are positives to be drawn, one that seems likely is that it has forced society to realise the value of roles and professions that previously were largely taken for granted. These range from supply chain logistics to shelf-stacking; lorry driving to cleaning, we are all discovering a new-found appreciation of the importance of certain jobs to our way of life.

In particular, the importance of engineering design and manufacturing has been thrust into the limelight by Covid-19. The dawning realisation that the NHS would not have sufficient ventilators to cope with the demand caused by the disease has forced government to call upon the UK’s engineers and manufacturers to help design and manufacture these life-saving pieces of equipment within a timeframe that would have been considered impossible in normal circumstances.

Ventilators are vital in helping the worst-affected Covid-19 patients with respiratory issues. They work like artificial lungs to provide oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. NHS chief executive Sir Stephens has said the health service has 6,699 adult mechanical ventilators and 750 paediatric ventilators that can be repurposed, while there are an estimated 691 in the private sector and 35 in the Ministry of Defence.

As reported in our previous issue, a Downing Street spokesman said of this drive: “We’re calling on the manufacturing industry and all those with relevant expertise who might be able to help to come together to help the country tackle this national crisis. We need to step up production of vital equipment such as ventilators so that we can all help the most vulnerable, and we need businesses to come to us and help in this national effort.”

To say that the response has been heartening would be an understatement. Eureka’s editorial inbox has been flooded with news of companies responding to this request.

Clearly this is an ongoing situation to which there are bound to be updates in forthcoming months, but some of the early developments include the announcement that TTP, the Cambridgeshire-based technology and product development company, is working with Dyson to produce 15,000 ventilators.

Known as The CoVent, their version is a bed-mounted, portable ventilator that can run on mains or battery power, meaning it can be used in field hospitals if required.

Providing it receives regulatory approval, the government will pay for 10,000 of Dyson and TTP’s ventilators. A further 1,000 will be donated here, while the remaining 4,000 are being produced for other countries.

TTP could not comment on the plans at this stage, but it is believed the companies created a prototype within 10 days, and it is hoped that the first ones will be in hospitals within weeks.

James Dyson, the founder of Dysonwas contacted by the Prime Minister to produce the ventilators. “Since I received a call from Boris Johnson,’ he wrote in an email to staff, “we have refocused resources at Dyson, and worked with TTP, The Technology Partnership, to design and build an entirely new ventilator, The CoVent.”

“This new device can be manufactured quickly, efficiently and at volume. It is designed to address the specific clinical needs of Covid-19 patients, and it is suited to a variety of clinical settings. The core challenge was how to design and deliver a new, sophisticated medical product in volume and in an extremely short space of time. The race is now on to get it into production.

“The Dyson Digital motor sits at the heart of the new device and the motor’s design is optimised to have a very high level of intrinsic safety, making it particularly well-suited for industrial, high volume production. The device is designed to achieve a high-quality air supply to ensure its safety and effectiveness, drawing on our air purifier expertise which delivers high-quality filtration in high-volume products.

“Ventilators are a regulated product so Dyson and TTP will be working with the MHRA and the government to ensure that the product and the manufacturing process is approved. We have received an initial order of 10,000 units from the UK government which we will supply on an open-book basis. We are also looking at ways of making it available internationally.

“I am proud of what Dyson engineers and our partners at TTP have achieved. I am eager to see this new device in production and in hospitals as soon as possible. This is clearly a time of grave international crisis, I will therefore donate 5,000 units to the international effort, 1,000 of which will go to the United Kingdom.”

Some questioned the decision to give Dyson and TTP this contract, But Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said that the government was working with companies that already produce ventilators too.“Frankly right across the world, the demand for ventilators is incredibly high so it is not possible to produce too many,” he said. “So anyone that can, should turn their production and their engineering minds to the production of ventilators,” he said.

Proof of this has come in the form of Ventilator Challenge UK, A consortium of significant UK industrial, technology and engineering businesses from across the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors, that has come together to produce medical ventilators for the UK. On 16 April, this consortium announced that it had secured MHRA approval for a ventilator design, meaning the medical device can now be used in hospitals across the country.

Ventilator Challenge UK, led by Dick Elsy, CEO of High Value Manufacturing Catapult, is accelerating the production of a new ventilator design based on existing technologies. The designs can be assembled from materials and parts in current production. Component manufacturing and assembly of existing ventilator designs by Smiths Medical and Penlon are being scaled up across the country at different manufacturing sites. The consortium has also commenced deliveries of the Smiths Group’s existing paraPAC plus design, which already has regulatory approval.

Elsy said of this announcement: “I’m very pleased to confirm that we have now secured MHRA approval for the Penlon Prima ESO2 device which has been undergoing stringent testing and clinical trials for the last two weeks. Ventilators of this type are complex and critical pieces of medical equipment so ensuring the absolute adherence to regulatory standards and meeting clinical needs were always our priorities. We will now accelerate the ramp up of production at the Penlon site in Oxfordshire and the new VCUK production lines we’ve built in Broughton, Dagenham and Woking. Having already commenced deliveries of the Smiths Group’s paraPAC plus devices, we are working closely with our supply chain partners to rapidly scale up production to achieve our target of at least 1,500 units a week of the combined Penlon and Smiths models. I want to take this opportunity to again thank every member of the consortium and the hundreds of dedicated colleagues who have been working day and night to get us to this point.”

The Penlon device is a newly-adapted ventilator design, adapted from previous models, that meets the rapidly manufactured ventilator system specification. It is a fully intubated mechanical ventilator designed to provide support to critically ill patients with a range of functions including volume and pressure-controlled ventilation.

Following the device’s approval, the government has confirmed an order for 15,000 Penlon devices. Hundreds of units were expected to be built over the following week, with production being further scaled up in the coming weeks.

Elsy said: “Ventilators of this type are complex and critical pieces of medical equipment, so ensuring the absolute adherence to regulatory standards and meeting clinical needs were always our priorities.”

The consortium will now accelerate the ramp up of production at the Penlon site in Oxfordshire and the new production lines built in Broughton, Dagenham, Woking and Maidenhead.

3D printing has also come into its own during this crisis. In one example, a trio of manufacturers have deployed cutting-edge 3D printing technology to support the NHS in caring for critically-ill coronavirus patients.

Wirral-based manufacturer Heap & Partners worked with Mercedes-Benz and Airbus to produce 3D-printed valves to convert scuba-diving equipment into ventilator masks. The manufacturers last month answered a call for help from frontline doctors at the Royal Surrey NHS Foundation Trust.

Clinicians at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford called on industry to help them meet unprecedented demand for COVID-19 patients requiring ventilator treatment.

In some three weeks the manufacturers re-deployed 3D laser printers to produce thousands of ‘Charlotte’ valves. The Charlotte valves were used to adapt scuba diving masks into fully functioning ventilator masks suitable for use in emergency therapy in the pre-intubation stage.

Heap & Partners is set to move production of the valves to injection moulding in a bid to rapidly increase the scale and pace of delivery. The company also 3D printed face masks for healthcare workers treating patients at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

Heap & Partners also set up a collection point at the firm’s Birkenhead headquarters for individuals who have a 3D printer at home and want to play their part in the national fight against coronavirus.

While ventilators are certainly the most high-profile example of design and engineering stepping up to the plate during this crisis, they are certainly not the only one. The demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) occasioned by Covid-19 is well-documented and there has been a global shortage of it – something that is critical among medical personnel.

Here, designers and engineering companies have stepped in, with 3D printing having played a significant part. One example in Inverness companies, 4c Engineering and Aseptium, which teamed up to design and manufacture face shields for the ICU unit at their local hospital, Raigmore, making 3,000 face shields in the first two weeks.

The companies identified a need for additional face shields to protect NHS staff from liquids or droplets which can be sprayed, coughed or sneezed in their direction. By coming together, the firms have managed to access supply chain knowledge, fabrication tools and equipment, design skills and user feedback.

“We have an ethical and moral responsibility, if we can, to step up and to meet these big challenges which are facing us,” said Peter MacDonald, Director of 4c Engineering. “Our profession encourages engineers to step up and to use their skills and knowledge to support each other simply because we can.”

The design of the face shield is robust, practical, safe and simple enough to ensure a quick production and manufacturing time. The foam on the face-shield gives a standoff which means that any glasses or masks that are worn underneath will fit comfortably.

At the beginning of the project, the team were hitting just over ten minutes per person per visor, and by the fifth day, they managed to get to just under four minutes per person per visor. Now, they have completed 2,000 face shields for NHS requirements, and another 1,000 have been manufactured which are allocated to local care homes and home care organisations.

At the moment, they are working on a new concept for the face shields which will feature a design that will be more reusable and more suitable for cleaning.

Dr. Jonathan Whiteside, Clinical Lead, Department of Critical Care from Raigmore Hospital, expresses his gratitude for the two companies and their help in supporting them through this crisis: “We were delighted to be approached by 4C Engineering, who were able to source materials locally, and produce much needed protective visors. These have been put to immediate clinical use in our Intensive Care Unit, providing staff with the necessary protection and allowing them to continue to provide high quality care, during these difficult times. Our whole team are extremely grateful and are proud to be supported by local businesses working together and helping us care for our patients in NHS Highlands”

These are just some of the examples of how design and engineering is playing its part in the fight against Coronavirus. Eureka! will certainly be documenting many more over the next few months.