Manufacturers around the world are being urged by governments to retool production to focus on ventilators and other medical equipment desperately needed to treat the rising numbers of coronavirus patients.

The speed at which the coronavirus spread caught many hospitals and national health organisations by surprise. As a result, there is an extreme shortage of ventilators that can help the patients suffering most acutely to fight the disease. Ventilators help get oxygen into the lungs of patients with acute respiratory difficulties and are critical for those in danger of lung failure, a typical cause of death for patients infected with the coronavirus.

Although hospitals and governments have ventilators available, the amount needed in a normal period is woefully short of what health officials will need when the full force of the virus hits populations. In the UK for example, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the UK had 5,000 ventilators but needed “many more times that number”. UK manufacturer Dyson, more commonly associated with making vacuum cleaners, fans, and hand dryers, secured a government order for 10,000 ventilators. The company designed and developed its CoVent prototype in under a fortnight and says it could start producing them within weeks, subject to regulatory approvals. Dyson is just one of many manufacturers that have risen to the challenge of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. The company has pledged to donate another 5,000 units to aid global efforts to fight the outbreak.

Meanwhile, the Italian government has asked Siare, the country’s only ventilator manufacturer, to quadruple its monthly production, and even called in the military to help. Germany ordered 10,000 ventilators from Dragerwerk AG (DRW3.DE) in one week, the company’s largest order ever and the head of the German agency for disease control and prevention has called on its manufacturers to help support in building more ventilators to combat coronavirus. Over in New York, officials said the state was “desperately” looking for extra machines as despite hospitals in the US having around 160,000 ventilators and a further 12,700 in a National Strategic Stockpile, experts predict that 1 million will die from the disease, as the health sector becomes overwhelmed with patients.

To stymie the number of potential deaths internationally, manufacturers are making major changes to their operations – halting production of their usual products and instead, retooling to help make as many ventilators as they possibly can. For instance, in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, the Chinese government tasked its industrial equipment department to produce as many ventilators as possible – they rose to the task building 15,000 within 8 weeks, but still more were needed. To support the effort, 10,000 Chinese manufacturers have adapted their factories to focus on the production of ventilators and other products that have been in short supply since the outbreak began.

In Britain, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson formed a consortium of manufacturers and suppliers to “rapidly” develop and produce the ventilators that UK hospitals will need to help severely ill patients with coronavirus. Headed by aerospace and defence component manufacturer Meggitt, the consortium are working to develop and produce large volumes of ventilators using a design that allows  rapid manufacturing. Vauxhall, owned by the French automotive group PSA and Airbus are among the firms who have said they are planning to 3D-print parts for ventilators, while Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover have said they are willing to assist with production.

The experience in volume production that manufacturing organisations hold – from skilled engineers to cutting edge production lines and industry-leading logistics capabilities – enable them to help save hundreds of thousands of lives world-wide. Discussing the plans to switch its production to support the ventilator shortage, a spokesperson for Rolls Royce said; “We are keen to do whatever we can to help the government and the country at this time and will look to provide any practical help we can.”

However, producing ventilators is not a simple process, as Dr Helen Meese from the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers explains; she believes medical device regulation to be as complex as that of aerospace engineering saying; “It’s very, very precise, very rigorous. And so just being able to turn production lines manufacturing processes over is not something that can be done overnight, it will take many weeks.”

Adding to this concern, Marcus Schabacker, chief executive of ECRI said: “We are in a global supply chain situation, like it or not, so everybody making ventilators here or elsewhere is going to be looking for parts, often coming from the same suppliers. There’s a domino effect coming into play.”

To mitigate this issue, Messe recommends that the manufacturers wanting to help fight this disease focus on building hand-held devices, refurbishing older existing mechanical devices and making simple parts for medical equipment as this will allow ventilator companies to focus on the larger jobs. Across the world, both strategies are fully underway, so which one is the most successful remains to be seen.

The global fight against the coronavirus is likely to be a long one, causing economic and social shocks in almost every country. The industry capable of easing this strain is ready and waiting to help, taking guidance from the experts and learning at lightning speed in order to help save the lives of millions.


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