Just a matter of weeks ago, as the number of daily cases for Covid-19 began to rise steeply, it was expected that the country would be woefully short of ventilators. Currently there are 20,000 people in hospital with just under 10,000 ventilators. A significant surge in production was required to ensure that the worst case peak load could be supported.
This gave rise to the Government’s Ventilator Challenge set by Boris Johnson in late March. A consortium was established consisting of significant UK industrial, technology and engineering businesses from across the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors.
An initial requirement was identified of 10,000 – as soon as possible. The existing ventilator suppliers, Smiths Medical and Penlon could, jointly make 50-60 per week; they could not ramp up sufficiently quickly to bridge the gap. This was the challenge for the consortium.
Not an insignificant challenge!
The Financial Times summed up the position:
A ventilator is a highly regulated product ( Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) containing many hundreds of components. Each part being subject to extremely specific and tightly controlled manufacturing processes,
For one of the projects, Rolls-Royce partnered with Smiths Medical in Luton to establish a new supply chain for their ParaPAC Plus 300. This model is a portable product measuring 25cm x 12cm x 12 cm and comprising of around 500 components. A complex mechanism that would be assembled at a new line set up by GKN. The initial challenge was to produce at a rate of 150-200 per week, by the middle of April, and then to double that, shortly thereafter, by building a new line at the Rolls-Royce facilities in Bristol – in the customer training centre and canteen!
From a standing start, the Rolls-Royce team of engineers, procurement and logistics specialists were formed on the afternoon of March 27th. Their task was to source all of the components onto new suppliers. Simple?
As with aerospace, the manufacture of medical equipment, is never simple!
Just some of the challenges…
This ventilator is an old product. The drawings and models date back a number of years. Different methods of interpretation meant that variations evolved between the drawings, the engineering models, and the supplied components – the challenge for the team was how to “square these circles”? What specifications to order from the suppliers?
Any engineering questions all needed to be referred back to Smiths Medical; unfortunately they only had a few Engineers on this project. Delegation had been given to a 3rd party organisation, PA Consulting, however this was limited, so referral back to Smiths for final approval was still necessary. A bottleneck which frustrated progress.
Material choices in the original design were made for specific technical reasons. e.g. to avoid oxygen interactions on the gas path, fire retardation properties , non-ferrous to reduce interference in the MRI ( Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner. Specialist materials proved difficult to source and alternatives were examined. However minor subtle differences in chemical composition could have compromised the function of the component – there was not enough time for a testing programme.
One of the plastics in the ventilator was difficult to machine and the process resulted in residue that needed removing (deburring). The existing supplier offered up the 70 page document that detailed what deburring process was allowed – no more. no less. This had to be understood and followed by the new supplier.
The ventilator would continue to be sold by Smiths Medical to the NHS. This meant that all participating companies from Rolls-Royce for sourcing, Accenture for purchasing, DHL for logistics and GKN for assembly, as well as the dozens of component suppliers, would have to follow the Smiths Quality System. In most cases these were all new procedures.
As the FT article rightly reported – this Challenge was always going to test everyone’s ingenuity to the limit.
In a highly regulated environment, processes and paperwork can be very slow. Components have to be carefully checked, tested and signed off by many, delayed by hand-offs between different departments, and organisations.
To compress the time, controls could not be compromised. It required an extraordinary level of agile working, , innovative thinking, effective team working across organisations and within Rolls-Royce, quick decision making – and sheer hard work.
The motivation to break down barriers, and achieve the impossible was not difficult – the team knew that the longer they took to deliver more parts, the greater the risk that lives would be lost.
It was that simple!
The parts are now being delivered into the the build line at GKN, so more ventilators can be supplied to the NHS…resulting in people’s lives being saved.
By the end of the challenge 4 million individual parts will have been delivered….in record time. A real success for the 100+ people in Rolls-Royce, together with their industrial partners across the country…..
…and it all started just 3 weeks ago!