Ventilator technology takes centre stage

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By Nick Flaherty

Ventilator technology has been at the heart of the response to the Coronavirus outbreak. Calls for increased production, new designs and even ‘force majeure’ to take over manufacturing plants have highlighted the importance of medical equipment to save the lives of patients. At the same time price is becoming an issue with systems in high demand.

Last night the US president, Donald Trump, signed an order to force car maker General Motors to manufacture ventilators. These are set to be based on a ventilator from Ventec Life System called VOCSN that is already in production.

The order, under the 1950 Defense Production Act, apparently came about after negotiations on price broke down. The deal, called ‘Project V’ is reported to be worth $1bn for 80,000 ventilators. While there is a cost for re-tooling, this puts the cost per ventilator at under $12,500, which is around the list price. At the same time, prices for a ventilator on the grey market have shot up from $20,000 to $97,000 according to reports, driving governments to look at other suppliers.    

Ventec said General Motors will build the ventilators at its plant in Kokomo, Indiana with 8,000 due to ship in April, and 10,000 a month after that. Ventec is also ramping up production at their manufacturing facility in Bothell, Washington, which makes 250 units a month. GM is donating its resources, including 1000 manufacturing staff, at cost, and the two companies said they had identified developed sourcing plans for the more than 700 individual parts that are needed to build up to 200,000 VOCSN ventilators.

 “This unique partnership combines Ventec’s respiratory care expertise with GM’s manufacturing might to produce sophisticated and high-quality critical care ventilators,” said Chris Kiple, CEO of Ventec Life Systems. “This pandemic is unprecedented and so is this response.”

Next: UK ventilator projects and production 

The situation echoes the experience in the UK. Vacuum cleaner maker Dyson claimed to have an order for 10,000 ventilators from the UK government for its new CoVent design developed by TTP in Cambridge. However the deal seems to be dependent on approval from the MHRA medical hardware agency. Supply of components such as motors and batteries may also be an issue as Dyson makes its consumer products in Malaysia. 

A separate design developed another vacuum cleaner maker Gtech, did not use electricity and relied on two plungers powered by the oxygen flow. However this had no battery back-up and so did not meet the UK government’s specification released earlier in the week.

Several other projects are looking to deliver designs for approval. The Ventilator Challenge group is led by Airbus with engineering firms GKN, Rolls Royce, Ford and Mclaren, and aims to produce ventilator systems developed by Penlon, based near Oxford, and Smiths Medical, which is headquartered in Minneapolis, US and has an office in Kent, UK.

One of Penlo’s designs, the Nuffield 200 Anaesthetic Ventilator can provide a quick and simple alternative ventilator solution and like the Gtech design is driven by the oxygen flow without the need for power.

Another ventilator design is OxVent, developed at the University of Oxford with Kings College London. The open source design could be manufactured from off the shelf components for under £1000 says the team.

Next: European ventilator production

Meanwhile established ventilator makers have been ramping up for a couple of weeks. Philips, Medtronic, GE and Breas have all dramatically increased production to meet demand, as have Draegerwerk in Germany, Hamilton Medical in Switzerland, Getinge in Sweden and Siare Engineering International in Italy. Many had been stockpiling components in recent weeks in preparation.

All of this highlights the challenges of quickly ramping production for medical equipment. We have yet to see the impact on the global supply chain, particularly on essential items such as high reliability film capacitors, ceramic capacitors and batteries: BMZ RAMPS UP BATTERY PRODUCTION.

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