Ploughshares to ventilators

Jon Barrett, Managing Editor, Electronics Sourcing

NOTE: Situations are changing by the hour. By the time you read this the NHS may already have the first batch of the 20,000 ventilators it has asked for. If not, read on

I don’t quote from the Bible that often but over the years I’ve used the phrase ‘swords to ploughshares’ to describe the process of moving a state’s productive capacity away from machines of war to more peaceful activities.

So, it came as a shock that I’ve coined a new phrase ‘ploughshares to ventilators’ in response to the government’s request for JCB and other manufacturing OEMs to retool for the manufacture of 20,000 ventilators asap.

Don’t ask but I know a little about ventilators. In normal operation human lungs draw air in via a vacuum created by the diaphragm muscle. Iron lung aside, when human respiration starts to fail (for a multitude of reasons) the solution is the reverse, to force air into the lungs. Enter the ventilator.

Basic mechanical ventilators do exist, I own one, but from my understanding they are typically used for patient transport and situations where the patient can be constantly monitored. At the other end of the scale are fully automated ventilators used in operating theatres and intensive care units. I assume these are what the NHS is asking for.

Multiple modes
Ventilators operate in multiple modes by adjusting multiple variables such as volume, pressure, frequency and O2 concentration. This demands a fail-safe, software controlled, electromechanical solution.

I’ve read some quotes stating the concept of retooling manufacturing sites to rapidly respond is beyond this country’s capabilities. Rubbish.

For the past 30-years UK manufacturing has retooled to do just that. Design processes are digital, manufacturing processes are digital, test processes are digital. UK OEMs and CEMs have specifically invested in fully automated, lights-out production hardware that in many instances can operate on lot-size-one.

International standards
All this is underpinned by an industry which is ruled by international standards to medical, defence, automotive and aerospace levels.

If there was one machine this country could make, fast and right, it’s a ventilator.

Everything can be prototyped via 3D print in one day once the STL files are available. CNC machining centres can handle the metal parts; spark erosion machines will have the injection mould tooling ready in hours; laser and water jet cutters can handle the sheet work; PCBs would be etched in hours and the design files used to program the pick and place machines, reflow machines and test facilities.

What about components? It just happens that the UK is home to some of the world’s greatest component distribution organisations, specifically geared to hold plenty of stock and deliver next day. It’s just what they do, and they do it well. Likewise, these companies are part of a global network of distribution hubs. If we don’t have a part here, it can arrive, for example, from the US in 48-hours max.

Likewise, distributors don’t just distribute. They also design, manufacture and test, typically in niche operations such as interconnect and wiring. This helps distribute production capacity and lets each business concentrate on doing what it does best.
Manufacturing is only one solution. What about rework and repair? How many faulty ventilators, regardless of age, are sitting in NHS warehouses? Maybe none, maybe thousands. This is where the UK’s repair and rework sector kicks in. With world leading IPC training facilities and vast teams of rework operators the capacity is there.

But what if a repair requires an obsolete part. No problem. The UK leads the world in obsolescence management from global distributors who specialise in sourcing and supplying obsolete components to specialist engineering companies who can manufacture alternatives. How do I know this: because my last visit before isolating was to Pacer’s clean room watching just such production.

3D Printers
And it doesn’t stop there. I own an industrial grade 3D printer. Across the UK, schools, universities, businesses and domestic properties are home to thousands, maybe tens of thousands of 3D printers. All I need is the STL file uploaded to Thingiverse, the material spec and the machine mode and I’m off and running. News reports suggest this is already happening in Italy where a 3D printer started outputting valves which need to be replaced every eight hours. Looking at the design, I imagine my machine would produce one valve every two to four hours depending on layer height. That’s a minimum of six per day. Call in a network of 1,000 machines and you have an emergency output of six thousand parts per day. All printed parts could be delivered to a central location for laser scanning for dimensional checks etc. Once the injection tooling comes online this capacity could be stood down.

All that I can imagine getting in the way is red tape. There is good reason for this. A faulty respirator is as likely to kill a patient as keep them alive. So I guess someone at the top has to decide: do the best we can within the existing red tape; throw every regulatory resource at the problem to make it go away fast; lower the standards; or abandon the standards and trust the manufacturers. I’m glad I’m not making that decision.

How confident am I that the UK can invoke a sovereign ventilator manufacturing capacity in weeks: 100 per cent. For the last 30-years I visited OEMs, CEMs, distributors and a plethora of other companies in the supply chain who have been showing exactly how they can do this if asked and sufficiently funded.

In many respects I hope this article is pointless. I hope that by the time you read this the pandemic is under control and the NHS is being held at or below capacity. I hope that everything I have described above has been triggered, and new or repaired ventilators are already arriving in hospitals.

I hope, because if a patient is intubated, on an automated ventilator, in an intensive care unit, every card has
been played.