Rapid manufacturing: Ford, Formula 1 and ventilators Featured

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by Peter Middleton

The COVID-19 pandemic has left hospitals scrambling for supplies of face masks, gloves, eye shields and aprons to protect health workers from infection; of testing kits to determine who can safely continue working and who should be in isolation; and, most importantly, of large numbers of live-saving respirators, without which worst-affected patients are likely to die.

Two rapid manufacturing stories have caught my eye in recent days:

On March 30, the Mercedes Formula 1 team, with the support of University College London Hospitals (UCLH) NHS Trust, announced it had reverse engineered an off-patent respirator and, using advanced engineering design, optimisation and simulation tools, produced a modern version suitable for rapid mass production. The new design was then built in the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 team’s state-of-the-art technology centre in Brackley, North London. The time taken? A hundred hours, from initiating the process to plugging in the life-saving device.

 CPAP respirator suitable for rapid mass production -  produced in just 100 hours.

100 of these respirators are now being delivered to UCLH for clinical trials – and seven other UK-based Formula 1 teams are cooperating in 'Project Pitlane' to collectively support health needs across a number of different projects such as these.

CPAP respirators (continuous positive airway pressure) deliver air and oxygen into the mouth and nose at a continuous rate, increasing the amount of oxygen into the lungs. They are used in advance of more mechanical ventilators, which require very high levels of care from medical personnel.

“These devices will help to save lives by ensuring that ventilators, a limited resource, are used only for the most severely ill,” says UCLH critical care consultant Mervyn Singer. "We hope they will make a real difference to hospitals across the UK by reducing demand on intensive care staff and beds, as well as helping patients recover without the need for more invasive ventilation.”

A second similar story came out of the US where Ford and GE-Health are cooperating to mass produce an FDA-approved ventilator designed by a small company called Airon Corp. Ford is retooling its Rawsonville Components Plant in Michigan with the aim of producing and delivering 50 000 of these units to US hospitals within 100 days – and 30 000 per month thereafter.

This unit operates using air pressure alone, which makes it ideal for use in overflow wards and temporary hospitals without access to ICU-bed technology – or even electricity. According to GE, the ventilator is also “designed for quick setup, making it easy for healthcare workers to use – and can be deployed in an emergency room setting, during special procedures or in an intensive care unit, wherever the patient may be located.”

What makes this possible? Manufacturing components for successful Formula 1 cars has two vital elements; engineering excellence and the rapid turnaround of new components, sometimes between races that are only one week apart.

Since the 2019 season, all 10 Formula 1 teams have been optimising components and manufacturing them using 3D printing/additive manufacturing, along with best-available CNC and other manufacturing equipment. Their manufacturing systems are therefore highly flexible, as are their engineers, which means they can quickly retool to rapidly manufacture new product of the highest quality.

Carmakers, while also turning to 3D-printing for some components, are geared towards mass production, but the increasing adoption of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies enables their systems to be very flexible, making it easy to switch production to new models and/or products. Also though, they have highly sophisticated supply chain expertise, making it easy to quickly source and supply what is needed to where it is needed.

What better use of these capabilities than to save the lives of the thousands of COVID-19 patients in a critical condition. And post the pandemic, what lessons will we have learned about how best to target our manufacturing capabilities to areas of most need?