Companies Pitching in to Help During Times of Crisis


Manufacturers from the automotive, aerospace and alcohol industries are among those to help plug global shortagesDyson ventilator

Dyson has designed a new type of ventilator (Credit: Dyson)

It’s no secret there’s been a huge shortage of key medical supplies including ventilators, face masks and hand sanitiser during the Covid-19 pandemic – with companies from a wide range of industries stepping in to help out.

Analytics company GlobalData estimates worldwide demand for ventilators alone stands at about 880,000 machines, while stocks have also long run out for the other supplies that help to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

The respiratory disease had infected at least 730,000 people – with many more predicted to have caught the illness without being tested – and killed almost 35,000, as of 30 March.

It’s also caused near-complete shutdowns of economies, with automakers like Volkswagen, Toyota, Hyundai and Honda closing factories to protect workers during the pandemic.

But like during wartime – when industrial titans like General Motors, Ford and Chrysler helped to produce airplanes, trucks, tanks, marine diesels, guns and shell – industry is being mobilised and companies across the world are helping to plug shortages for ventilators and other life-saving equipment.

Car companies helping global shortage of ventilators

Analytics company GlobalData estimates there are 880,000 ventilators in demand globally, given that 10% of patients infected by Covid-19 will require the respiratory support machines.

And while many specialist medical ventilator manufacturers have ramped up production, a host of car companies have stepped in to help plug the shortage.

ventilator uk regulation
Ventilator machines are used to help patients experiencing respiratory distress breathe (Credit: Dr James Heilman/Wikimedia)

General Motors, Tesla and Ford have all pledged their support to offer resources in the US, where regulations have been relaxed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to plug the shortage of an estimated 75,000 devices.

Ford is using parts usually installed in vehicles, such as fans and batteries, to produce modified respirators and ventilators – working alongside health industry manufacturers GE Healthcare and 3M. The automotive giant also wants to make 75,000 transparent face shields used in hospitals.

Tesla, meanwhile, will partner with US medical technology giant Medtronic to make ventilators at its gigafactory in Buffalo, New York, which usually makes solar PV cells.

In Britain, aerospace multinational Airbus has led the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium, which brings together rival manufacturers from a range of industries in a unified national effort to increase the number of ventilators in the NHS from 8,175 to 30,000 within weeks.

Engineering firms Rolls-Royce, Siemens, GKN and Meggitt, Formula 1 team McLaren, aerospace company BAE Systems and Ford are among those offering their facilities to build more machines based on proven designs already used by medical device manufacturers Smiths Medical and Penlon.

These companies are expected to waive any profits but it secures continued employment for their staff at a time when many of them have otherwise shut down production.

Mercedes and UCL have reverse-engineered a CPAP breathing device, which can be given to some patients without the need for invasive mechanical ventilation (Credit: Mercedes)

Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains, a division of the Daimler-owned automotive giant that makes Formula 1 engines, will aim to make 10,000 continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines – which provide oxygen before ventilators are needed.

The company is working alongside mechanical engineers at University College London (UCL) and clinicians at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) to adapt an existing breathing aid for mass production – a process known as reverse engineering.

It took fewer than 100 hours from the initial meeting to produce the first device, which has gained NHS approval.

Mercedes said half the patients given CPAP in Italy have avoided the need for invasive mechanical ventilation, but have been in short supply in UK hospitals.

Professor Rebecca Shipley, director of the UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering, told the BBC: “Normally medical device development would take years but we’ve done that in days because we went back to a simple existing device and “reverse engineered” it in order to be able to produce them quickly and at scale.”

Dyson’s new ventilator design

While the majority of manufacturers will use existing designs to build ventilators, Dyson plans to develop a new version of the machine.

The company, which is better known for its innovation in bagless vacuum cleaners and hand dryers, will work alongside The Technology Partnership – a group of British scientists and engineers aiming to drive innovation – to develop its new system, called The CoVent.

Founder Sir James Dyson has said the new system, which is designed to address the specific needs of Covid-19 patients, can be manufactured “quickly, efficiently and at volume”.

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Dyson has designed a new type of ventilator (Credit: Dyson)

Dyson has already begun work at the RAF Hullavington technology campus after receiving an initial order of 10,000 units from the UK government and will donate another 5,000 to the international effort.

In a letter to staff, Sir James said: “Ten days ago the UK government requested a design for a ventilator that was safe, effective, efficient in conserving oxygen, easy to use, bed-mounted, portable and not needing a fixed air supply.”

He added that CoVent “meets the clinician-led specifications, to address the explicit clinical needs of COVID-19 patients.”

But there have been questions over whether it will be able to build them quickly enough while meeting regulatory standards.