Rival companies work together to manufacture medical ventilators

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UK aerospace and automotive companies are working together around the clock to produce thousands more ventilators and meet the urgent need amid the escalating coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pleaded for industry to pull together in an extraordinary effort to manufacture more ventilators for the NHS. Ventilators – which help patients breathe by mechanically moving air in and out of the lungs – will be urgently needed in light of the Covid-19 outbreak, as the disease causes severe respiratory difficulty in many victims.

The government has indicated that industry should aim to deliver 5,000 ventilators within the next month. It is expected that 20,000 to 30,000 will be required to support vulnerable patients through the pandemic. According to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, the NHS has access to 12,000 ventilators, including hundreds shared by private hospitals, thousands newly bought from existing providers and several borrowed from the Ministry of Defence.

“We’ve made serious progress on that; there’s now over 12,000 that we’ve managed to get to,” Hancock said, speaking to BBC Radio. “We started with 5,000, so we’ve been buying ventilators and we’ve also been engaged with companies who are going to turn their production over to ventilators.”

However, thousands more ventilators are still required and Johnson has been engaged in conversation with dozens of engineering companies to get them on board with the effort, which is unprecedented in peacetime.

A consortium of aerospace and automotive companies dubbed the 'High-Value Manufacturing Catapult' has been formed, which includes Airbus, GKN, Renishaw and Thales. The consortium is led by Meggitt, which produces oxygen systems for aircraft. JCB, Rolls-Royce and Unipart have also expressed interest in joining. As social distancing forces non-essential manufacturing to grind to a halt, many manufacturers now have unused factory space which could be converted into temporary ventilator production lines.

The consortium is considering the possibility of developing a 'clean sheet' ventilator, designed for rapid manufacturing. However, a new ventilator will still have to overcome complex legal and regulatory obstacles, even if regulators prioritise assessment.

An alternative is to use or adapt existing designs, such as Smiths Group’s 'Parapac' ventilator. The company’s Medical Unit has committed to quadrupling production of the lightweight ventilator at its Luton factory, up to around 300 per week. The company is prepared to provide advice and intellectual property to other companies, with the possibility of opening up additional manufacturing lines at a GKN Aerospace plant (also based in Luton) or at Airbus’ facilities in North Wales. It is also looking into adding production capacity for the ventilator in the US and elsewhere with the help of contract manufacturers.

“We are doing everything possible to substantially increase production of our ventilators at our Luton site and worldwide,” said CEO Andrew Reynolds Smith.

However, the Parapac ventilator – which does not require external power and is intended for mobile use, such as in ambulances – is not guaranteed to be suitable for longer-term use.

Although the UK is struggling more than some other countries – given that most ventilator manufacturers are based overseas – the shortage of these essential medical supplies is a global challenge.

Dutch health tech company Philips is planning to ramp up production of critical healthcare products, including doubling the production of hospital ventilators in the next eight weeks. Italy has told its only ventilator manufacturer (Siare) to quadruple its monthly production of the machines and has even called in military assistance. The German government has ordered 10,000 ventilators from Lübeck-based Dragerwerk AG in the largest single order ever for the company.

In the US, Minnesota-based 3M has doubled its production of hand sanitisers and N95 respirator masks (which many doctors and nurses are being forced to reuse due to supply shortage) and Medtronic, which has headquarters in Minnesota, has increased ventilator production by more than 40 per cent.

GM, Volkswagen, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Mahindra & Mahindra, Tesla and Ferrari are all reportedly looking into the possibility of assisting with manufacturing medical supplies, with Volkswagen creating a task force to investigate the use of 3D printing to make ventilator parts and at least one Fiat Chrysler factory set to be converted to produce face masks.

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