Ventilator Challenge UK: reflections from members

3 mins read

As the Ventilator Challenge UK winds down after producing nearly 13,000 ventilators since the start of the pandemic, one member of the group has called the challenge "like sprinting a marathon".

Here, operational consultancy Newton Europe and product data management (PDM) specialists Quick Release – members of the Ventilator Challenge UK Consortium – share their experiences of being part of the group.

Their combined expertise in operational excellence, supply chain mobilisation and transformation programme management have played a pivotal role in rapidly increasing production of Penlon’s ESO2 device – the first emergency ventilator to reach UK hospitals.

The Ventilator Challenge UK Consortium was a large group of companies that came together to produce medical ventilators for the UK. The businesses involved were industrial, technology and engineering companies from across the automotive, aviation and medical sectors. There were several groups involved within the challenge, with Newton and Quick Release working in the Penlon group.

Based in Oxfordshire, the Penlon group achieved approval from the UK’s healthcare regulator for its ESO2 device, adapted from existing anaesthesia products, in April 2020. The project has successfully produced 11,683 ventilators in just 12 weeks, with more than 12.5 million parts being used during the production process.

Previously, Penlon and another specialist manufacturer Smiths were producing between 50-60 ventilators per week. However, thanks to the scale and resources of the wider consortium, the companies reached production levels of more than 2,000 ventilators per week.

This significant ramp-up in production has been made possible by combining specialist product knowledge and engineering skill with the physical assets and human resources of large companies such as Ford, Airbus and DHL.

Newton and Quick Release’s responsibility can be broadly split into two areas. The first phase looked at identifying the fastest route to regulatory sign-off and then driving urgency behind the critical tasks. The consultancies then shifted their focus to look at unblocking the rate-limiting parts or processes needed for high-volume manufacture – smoothing the way for factories across the country to build ventilators at pace.

To overcome the barriers of scaling production in such a complex and fast-moving environment, Newton and Quick Release deployed experts to design the right analytical tools, implement processes and facilitate effective communication across multiple businesses to quickly fix issues that may impact production. For example, when the team discovered a critical part was being produced below the required rate, they found a new supplier who could produce at a higher frequency, validated their quality assurance process, checked their samples and reviewed their capability to onboard them within just 24 hours.

The team also ensured the transfer of skills and knowledge from a small number of staff at Penlon to thousands of people across the Ventilator Challenge UK Consortium. The team further optimised production by bringing in staff to work at different times of the day and sourced the necessary facilities for them to work under social distancing requirements.

Tom Wedgwood, Founding Director of Newton, said: “This is the single biggest manufacturing challenge I’ve ever seen – in fact, it’s the challenge of a lifetime.

“Developing a new ventilator design and achieving certification is an achievement in itself. But assembling a consortium of 12 businesses, with nine new sites, over 2,000 people, building a global supply chain and scaling-up from producing tens of machines to thousands per week – all in the space of two months – is unprecedented.

“This was only possible due to the strong leadership and teamwork of everyone involved, as well as the group being aligned to a single goal. There were no egos, everyone shared information and we all harnessed our different strengths. It’s inspirational what can be achieved when there’s the right team with the right values all driving towards a focused goal.

Watch: MM's interview with Ventilator Challenge boss, Dick Elsy
Read more: Ventilator Challenge UK winds down operations

“The work the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium is delivering will undoubtedly save lives and I’m immensely proud of the role the Newton team is playing.”

Ian Quest, Director of Quick Release, said: “Sprinting a marathon is a fitting analogy for what the consortium’s achieved in just four weeks; a more usual development and approval timeframe would be around 18 months, so delivering the first shipment in around 6% of the regular time is a credit to all involved.

“We’ve focused on curating information that can inform and drive action. The foundation of this is product data quality, which is where our Bill of Materials (BoM) management and validation work has paid dividends across the whole project cycle. Similarly, the lightweight Material Requirements Planning (MRP) system designed from scratch in under a week – which comprises 13,000 lines of code – focuses on what is needed to drive action.”

Dick Elsy, Head of the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium and CEO of High Value Manufacturing Catapult, said: “Newton and Quick Release’s work to define and manage the end-to-end process meant the Penlon consortium could be clear on how dozens of companies across the consortium would come together to increase production at pace.

“When the call came from the Government, it meant that specialist manufacturers such as Penlon and Smiths needed to significantly ramp-up production of a complex device at a rate never seen before. Newton and Quick Release’s support in making data-driven decisions has quickly resolved any bottlenecks and meant the consortium companies have been able to get on with building the parts needed in record time. The Ventilator Challenge UK consortium is an example of the UK’s finest engineering firms coming together in the fight against COVID-19.”