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Engineering Extremes: Designing a ventilator under intense time pressure

Alex Eliseev

The Dyson ventilator (Credit: This is Engineering)
The Dyson ventilator (Credit: This is Engineering)

Looking at her rabbit hutch, six-year-old Vicky wondered why it couldn’t have a slide for the cuddly creatures to play on. What about an underground compartment or a tunnel that swept along the flower patch? Soon she was using her wallpaper to draw plans for a second-storey conversion.

The need to build came early for engineer Vicky Gibson-Robinson. 

The rabbit hutch blueprints gave way to a wine-box winch system to take toys up the stairs of her family’s townhouse near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. Then came school, university and some soul searching. Today, Vicky’s an engineering manager at Dyson, creating products that purify air. She’s still chasing the rush of a perfect design. Only her rabbit hutch is now a 300-year-old pub she’s busy converting into a house in the Cotswolds. And, instead of tidying up toys, she’s had the incredible opportunity to help build an urgently needed ventilator during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Maths or art?

Choosing a career wasn’t easy. Vicky, now 31, was good at maths, but loved art. She was driven by an “intense curiosity”, living in a world of endless what ifs? She agonised over which path to follow and, with some help from her dad, found one that runs somewhere in between.

She joined Dyson as a graduate engineer in 2012 and has worked in development and innovation. She beams with excitement when describing the projects she’s tackled and how much learning she’s done. The words “so cool” frequently accompany detailed explanations about pressure regulators or solenoids. But nothing compares to the events that unfolded from March last year. Events that began with a single message on a company WhatsApp group. 

Vicky Gibson-Robinson

Vicky Gibson-Robinson

The message called for volunteers to help design and build a ventilator. The UK was deep in lockdown. Vicky didn’t know much about the project, or ventilators, but jumped right in. She joined a team that had a month to get an idea onto the production line. It was an unheard-of deadline, but these were no ordinary times, and the hospitals were under severe pressure.  

On her first day, Vicky and the others found pieces scattered on the floor and a brief to assemble them. Dyson couldn’t use an existing ventilator because what the NHS needed was a cheap option that could be mass-produced using locally sourced parts. The new ventilator needed to be robust, and capable of being taken from hospital to hospital. The clock was ticking. 

Pizzas and prototypes 

First, team members like Vicky had to learn how ventilators are built. Then came the work. Hers was mostly to design a metal chassis to keep all the components together. She had never designed or worked with metal, only plastic, so even that was a journey of discovery, playing out late at night or on weekends. The pressure was on. Solutions had to be found instantly. Her first prototype was assembled using cardboard boxes from Domino’s Pizza deliveries. 

Later on, Vicky remembers emailing a 3D design to a supplier at 2am on a Monday morning. At 11am that day she got a call to say the prototypes were being driven from Birmingham to Dyson in Hullavington in Wiltshire. In nine hours, they had been cut, bent, painted, assembled and sent on their way. Mostly during the night.  

“The speed we were operating at was mind-blowing,” she says.  

Everyone pulled together to achieve what no one imagined was possible. 

A month and £20m later, a production line appeared inside a hangar. The ventilator was ready to go. Vicky felt like she had been part of something so much bigger than herself. The girl who designed rabbit hutches had helped build a machine to save lives during a deadly pandemic sweeping the globe. 

“It was the best experience of my life,” she says. “It felt like everyone had come together to do this thing for society. Everyone was so dedicated. The stakes were so high.” 

Beating boredom  

Vicky’s mother wasn’t a huge fan of her early inventions, but this time she cried when she saw what her daughter had achieved. The projects Vicky had worked on before were secret, but the ventilator gave her family a glimpse into her working world. 

In the end, the government didn’t need the ventilator that Vicky and her colleagues had built at record speed. The hospitals coped and the demand eased off. But the ventilator project not only showed what was possible, it changed lives, including Vicky’s. 

“Two years ago, I would have been cautious of saying yes to something if I didn’t know exactly how to do it,” she explains. “But if you do that, you’ll hold yourself back. Always say yes. If the opportunity is in front of you, do it. You’ll figure it out as you go. Engineers are problem solvers.”  

Some day, Vicky hopes to be Dyson’s first female head of engineering. Until then, she’s got another ambition: to not get bored. As things stand, it doesn’t seem like she’s in any danger of that. 

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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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