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Ventilator teamwork shows what’s possible with innovative thinking

Image credit: Ventilator Challenge UK

A cross-sector UK response to Covid-19 has prompted those involved to ask – why can’t UK industry work like this all the time?

It’s been nearly a year since the fateful day when Boris Johnson put out a plea for help from British industry. With the news feeds full of images of patients being turned away from Italian hospitals and the UK National Health Service short of ventilators, the question was: can you make them and make them fast?

Several companies and consortia stepped up to have a go. The challenge seemed impossible – to produce thousands in a matter of weeks. The consortium that I chaired, VCUK, brought together some of the country’s best engineering and manufacturing businesses from across the aerospace, automotive, motorsport and medical devices sectors to deliver that goal.

We supported Smiths Industries to scale up its paramedic device and also put our full weight behind the production of a new ventilator from a tiny UK company called Penlon that makes anaesthesia equipment. The Penlon engineering team had found an innovative way of configuring some of its kit to produce an ICU ventilator that met all the requirements of the clinicians, but they could build just two a day. Our challenge was to multiply that by 200 times.

As we were only as good as the longest lead time to obtain parts and the rate of supply, we established a whole suite of parallel supply chains and took relationships with suppliers to a new level. We developed an intense extended enterprise with the supply base to ensure that we were never parts-constrained. Extraordinary measures were taken. When we needed a specific chipset that had gone out of production, our team got the data and booked fabrication time in Israel. We got our carbon-copy chipsets on time for the build.

We set up five new factories to house ventilator production lines at Ford, Airbus, McLaren, Penlon and STI. This was done in the space of three weeks, with right-first-time guaranteed through a digital-twin programme.

Problem resolution became an obsession. Nothing could get in the way of progress. With so many companies involved we set up an open data system so all could have access to one version of the truth, 24/7, across the whole project. The power of this was extraordinary, fuelling lightning responses to problems and unshakable change control in parallel with production.

A month after setting eyes on a first prototype we had regulatory approval and were in production. Twelve weeks later we’d made 11,680 and were building at 400 a day, doubling the number of ventilators available to the NHS and ensuring that anyone who needed one, got one.

As the consortium reflects on this extraordinary programme a year on, it has distilled out four key learning points.

First is the need for clarity of purpose. The consortium’s purpose was clear: save lives! That powerful goal appealed to the intrinsic human motivations of every member of our team. We knew delay could cost lives. Not all innovation collaborations will have such a compelling purpose, but every effective collaboration will have at its heart an abiding belief in a common cause, backed up across the whole team by a strong and effectively communicated vision and objective.

Next is the virtue of real openness. All organisations talk about their desire for openness. It can be the difference between a collaboration that works well and failure. On VCUK, no project data was private. Systems were created to make everything accessible; the whole culture was about speaking up and outing problems and triumphs in equal measure. It made a real difference. It meant that the right talents could cluster quickly around difficulties, and solutions were found fast. In practice, one issue was captured and shared every 90 minutes. At any one time the team was managing around 140 live issues. Fifty per cent of those were sorted within two days and all critical issues were resolved within 22 hours, 7 days per week.

And with a hugely complex project like this, the consortium’s approach was to draw in the right expertise, regardless of rank. It meant that we had engineers working alongside their CEO as respected equals, valued purely for what they could bring to the programme delivery.

Finally, we created fit-for-purpose structures. Instead of the bureaucratic tiered management structures we’re all too familiar with, the team self-organised around the key parcels of work with a flat governance structure and meritocratic way of working. Daily checkpoint meetings supported openness and growth of trust. The whole approach was needs-driven, with a commitment to aiming high and failing fast. Although the consortium involved people from different organisations and cultures, the sense of cohesion was huge.

Most of us working on VCUK ask ourselves: why can’t we work like this all the time? What stops us from unleashing this potential in our own organisations? The answer is, in fact, very little. Our story shows what’s possible, if the right people are given the opportunity to do the right things. 

Dick Elsy FREng is CEO of the UK High Value Manufacturing Catapult and chaired the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium.

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