Adapting the assembly line: how manufacturers are repurposing for Covid-19

Chloe Kent 21 July 2020 (Last Updated July 10th, 2020 13:16)

With racing season postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Formula 1 teams in the UK have repurposed themselves to manufacture medical devices to aid in the crisis. Chloe Kent takes a look at this effort, and others, to find out how a diverse range of industries are tackling the challenges brought on by the crisis.

Adapting the assembly line: how manufacturers are repurposing for Covid-19
Seven UK F1 teams have become Project Pitlane, an industry-wide effort to manufacture and deliver respiratory devices. Credit: Shutterstock

For Covid-19 patients with the very worst symptoms of the disease, a ventilator can offer their best chance of survival. The machines take over when the lungs can’t function on their own anymore, via a tube inserted into the patient’s airway. Reports of the survival rates of ventilated patients have varied, from just 34% to as high as 90%, but its undebatable that the global death toll of the disease would be far higher without them.

The surge in the number of ventilators and related breathing apparatus now required across the globe has led many manufacturers to repurpose their non-essential assembly lines to build these devices instead – some more successfully than others.

 

VentilatorChallengeUK: a nationwide effort

A consortium of UK industrial, technology and engineering businesses from the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors have come together to develop medical ventilators for UK Covid-19 patients. Known as the VentilatorChallengeUK Consortium, the group is led by High Value Manufacturing Catapult CEO Dick Elsy. Companies involved include Siemens Healthineers, Unilever, and seven UK-based Formula 1 racing teams.

Companies from the consortium have now received formal orders from the UK Government for more than 15,000 ventilator units and are accelerating the production of two agreed upon designs, the Penlon Prima ES02 and the Smiths Group’s paraPAC plus. The ventilators are based on existing technologies of consortium members and can be assembled from materials and parts currently in production.

VentilatorChallengeUK has now received approval from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for both devices and has been scaling up to produce 1,500 ventilators per week.

Project Pitlane: from track to trachea

The seven UK-based Formula 1 teams contributing to VentilatorChallengeUK have also responded to the UK Government’s call for assistance in other ways. Aston Martin Red Bull Racing, BWT Racing Point F1 Team, Haas F1 Team, McLaren F1 Team, Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team, Renault DP World F1 Team and Williams Racing (formerly ROKiT Williams Racing) have become part of Project Pitlane, an industry-wide effort to manufacture and deliver respiratory devices to support the country in its fight against Covid-19.

The project consists of three main workstreams: participation in the Ventilator Challenge UK (VCUK) consortium upscaling the Penlon and Smiths ventilators; an R&D project conducted in conjunction with the NHS Young Entrepreneur Programme; and the development of a new continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP) in conjunction with University College London (UCL).

The most successful F1 medical device workstream has arguably been the latter, with Mercedes’ CPAP machine developed with UCL gaining approval for use by the NHS in April. The UCL-Ventura breathing aid helps Covid-19 patients with lung infections breathe more easily when an oxygen mask alone is insufficient, but intubation isn’t needed. It was open-sourced, allowing anyone to produce the ventilator by copying the design.

Copying isn’t something F1 teams could usually encourage. Teams are notoriously  strict about who is even allowed access to their facilities to prevent any information about their unique racing car designs are leaked to their rivals. But in the face of a global pandemic this concern has understandably been set aside. Red Bull and Renault have actually worked together to build the BlueSky Ventilator. While it wasn’t adopted by the UK Government in the end, as the final design was found to be unsuitable for Covid-19 patients, both teams remain a contributing part of Project Pitlane.

Dyson’s CoVent: not every design is adopted

Alongside Red Bull and Renault, not every company which has repurposed itself for ventilator production has seen complete success with its design.

British vacuum cleaner manufacturer Dyson, which spent an estimated $25m on a project to develop the CoVent ventilator to treat Covid-19 patients, initially received an order for 10,000 of the machines from the UK Government. However, a month later it was announced that the order would not be fulfilled, as the British Government no longer needed the device Dyson developed from scratch to plug an initial ventilator shortfall.

The CoVent, which was reportedly build in ten days using the company’s pre-existing motor technology, is designed as a bed-mounted, portable ventilator, which can run on battery power if necessary.

In a statement, Dyson founder James Dyson explained that he did not regret the time and resources put into the ventilator effort, despite the cost, saying: “Mercifully they are not required.

“I have some hope that our ventilator may yet help the response in other countries, but that requires further time and investigation.”

Tesla’s donations: Elon-gate stretches on

On 31 March 2020, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that he had “extra FDA-approved” ventilators read to ship out. However, instead of ventilators, Tesla sent out a batch of bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPap) machines manufactured by ResMed.

While they are great for sleep apnoea, Bi-pap machines are not effective for treating severe symptoms of Covid-19. They could actually exacerbate its spread, as the machines could pump virus particles exhaled by infected patients into the air where they could be inhaled by other people.

Fortunately, despite his apparent misunderstanding of the medical devices needed by hospitals, Musk’s efforts haven’t been wasted. A team at Mount Sinai hospital has now designed a conversion kit, which can convert the BiPap machines into ventilators for patients who require intubation.