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Fast-paced ventilator challenge ‘has huge lessons for UK innovation after COVID-19’

Joseph Flaig

Testing of a Smiths Group ventilator (front, centre), which are being manufactured as part of the Ventilator Challenge UK (Credit: Smiths Group)
Testing of a Smiths Group ventilator (front, centre), which are being manufactured as part of the Ventilator Challenge UK (Credit: Smiths Group)

With the UK outbreak of COVID-19 at its peak, teams around the country are racing to build ventilators to help keep thousands of patients alive.

While companies are still in the thick of it and the virus continues to infect many people, some have started thinking about how the lessons from such fast-paced collaborative work can have a long-lasting positive impact on UK engineering.

The topic was discussed at The Engineering Response to Covid-19, an online IMechE event chaired by head of engineering Dr Jenifer Baxter on Friday (24 April). The event included speakers from NHS England, a University of Southampton team building PPE devices and manufacturer Sunseeker International.

Sam Turner, the chief technology officer from the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, also spoke about the Ventilator Challenge UK. The consortium, which has brought together companies from across engineering to build ventilators from Penlon and Smiths Group, is led by Catapult chief executive Dick Elsy.

The project has managed a “phenomenal turnaround” under intense pressure, said Turner. “What we’ve achieved in about four or five weeks would normally take about two-and-a-half years – really quick decision-making, engineering requalification of components, supply chain sourcing. And the real volume production is now starting to hit the peak of 1,500 a week across seven new production facilities, on top of the two existing ones.

“It’s an amazing response, still motoring at high pace, and a great example of how engineers can respond – actually when some of the barriers are removed – really quickly, to deliver something phenomenal at scale.”

Although the team is in one of its busiest periods at the moment, Turner said some thought has already been given to how the knowledge gained during the project could aid innovation across engineering in future.

“There are huge lessons to be learned here,” he said. “Even putting things like contracts in place in a day or two turnaround, legal teams, the ability to very quickly design, iterate, quality-check, verify, build prototypes, scale those to volume production, source supply chain components internationally – it’s a phenomenal learning curve, and there are lots of things we can learn there about focused, self-organising teams, appropriate delegation of authority, really clear mission focus and communications.

“It’s all hard work of course, the pace of work is not sustainable under normal conditions, but the process we’ve gone through could absolutely be applied to a range of different products.”

Future innovation is also required to protect against similar outbreaks, said IMechE fellow and founder of the Care Machine, Helen Meese. Engineering ideas can prevent the spread of infectious diseases and protect healthcare workers.

“We need long-term solutions and that may involve automation, it may involve robotics, there may be all kinds of things that people could put their minds to, post-Covid,” she said.

She encouraged engineers to contact their institutions or relevant government departments to offer help during the crisis, but added: “After we are back to some kind of normality, get in touch with hospitals, reach out to the engineering teams… find out what you can do and even maybe consider becoming a clinical engineer.”


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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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