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4 ways that engineering has stepped up to the Covid-19 crisis

Professional Engineering

Stock image (Credit: Shutterstock)
Stock image (Credit: Shutterstock)

The coronavirus outbreak spread with shocking speed. Knowing how other countries had struggled, it was clear what was needed – social distancing, testing, ventilators for patients and personal protective equipment (PPE) for NHS staff.

Faced with the spiralling outbreak and serious drawbacks in provisions, the engineering community and manufacturers stepped up. Here are four ways engineers have been tackling the coronavirus emergency. 

Building ventilators

Dozens of firms have pivoted production lines to build the thousands of ventilators needed to treat patients with Covid-19. One of the most prominent is the Ventilator Challenge UK, with famous companies such as Airbus, BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce building two devices from Penlon and Smiths Group. The companies can normally build between 50 and 60 combined units per week, but the consortium was aiming for at least 1,500 units per week.  

Elsewhere, businesses used specialised knowledge and equipment to help protect patients in innovative ways. Protolabs in Telford, Shropshire, used 3D printing to build hundreds of ‘Charlotte’ valves in just three days, which were used by Innisova in Italy to convert snorkelling equipment into non-invasive ventilator masks.  

Helping at hospitals

In less than 24 hours more than 600 engineers signed up to volunteer at new coronavirus field hospitals. A range of engineering skills are needed to support frontline work at the facilities in London, Manchester and Birmingham, which could care for more than 4,000 patients. (This article originally appeared in Professional Engineering Issue 3. Since publication the government has started to wind down the programme, but it will be maintained in case of a second wave of patients).  

“You have stepped up to the plate and without question volunteered to help with the Covid-19 crisis in the most amazing way,” said IMechE trustee Dr Helen Meese. 

Printing face shields

Online knowledge transfer, localised production, cost-effective materials – 3D printing is perfectly suited to pandemic response. Printers in schools, libraries and workshops were quickly repurposed to make required equipment, particularly the transparent face shields to prevent sprayed virus particles from reaching the mouths and eyes of medical workers. 

The masks generally include non-printed transparent visors, and printed headbands, which can be adjusted to the diameter of a worker’s head and requirements. One team contributing to the effort was led by IMechE members at Inverness firms 4c Engineering and Aseptium, which built 3,000 shields in two weeks

Simulating disease spread 

Engineers at MSC Software, which usually develops simulation software for organisations including Nasa, Airbus and Audi, used their expertise to model how coronavirus can spread. The team used computational fluid dynamics to visualise a typical sneeze’s velocity and droplet spread. The company hoped its work could demonstrate the importance of proper protection and the design of enclosed spaces to prevent transmission of the virus.


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 

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