British engineers may be forced to build outdated mechanical ventilators

Engineers may be forced to manufacture outdated mechanical ventilators to meet the unprecedented demand for the life-saving kit amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Mechanical ventilators do not require electricity and were phased out around two decades ago to be replaced with electromechanical upgrades. 

However, the obsolete apparatus could be brought back into use as shortages of electrical components and sensors usually manufactured in Asia could prevent modern equipment from being made. 

NHS data reveals the vast majority of people admitted to hospital after testing positive for COVID-19 require ventilation to breathe as their immune system fights off the infection. 

The UK government has already approached several large British firms – including Dyson, Rolls Royce, JCB, Honda, Philips and Unipart – to start producing ventilators. 

Meanwhile, five design companies, each with a medical equipment track record, are each working on a specification to enable mass production as part of a government catapult scheme. 

  

The claims come as a letter sent to hospital bosses today from Sir Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, said trusts should cancel all non-urgent surgeries starting from April 15 for at least 12 weeks.   

The letter states: ‘National procurement for assisted respiratory support capacity, particularly mechanical ventilation, is also well under way in conjunction with the Department of Health and Social Care.’

It is believed the health service is aiming for around 4,000 more ventilators. 

Current ventilator systems in British hospitals are highly sophisticated pieces of equipment that are both mechanical and electrical. 

Experts believe that while the mechanical parts that make up the bulk of the machines could be manufactured by most engineering firms with relative ease, the electrical components could be the sticking point. 

Stephen Phipson, Chief Executive of Make UK, an industry body, said: ‘The main challenge is likely to be the sourcing of components, much of which are electronic, may not be made in the UK, and more likely to come from Asia which brings its own problems.’

Dr Helen Meese, trustee and vice-chair of the biomedical engineering division of the Institution of mechanical engineers, told MailOnline: ‘The difficulty for companies is getting component parts. 

‘These devices are electromechanical in nature. The bit that does the breathing is mechanical and it is controlled by software and electrics that control the breathing process.

‘The mechanical side for a company to build from scratch as the individual parts can be machined relatively simply.

‘But because of the nature of industry in the UK, a lot of the electronics are made oversees, in the Far East and China.’

Professor David Delpy, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, told MailOnline many of the electrical sensors do not have vast amounts of these sophisticated sensors in stock. 

He says: ‘It may be the sensors that are the limiting problem. 

‘This is an international problem which makes it hard to go to the extended international supply chain in search of the one component you want as it is the same one everyone else around the world is looking for.’   

He adds: ‘The advantage of the mechanical ventilator is that it can be manufactured by more people and manufacturers. 

‘Most of the materials for the old mechanical ventilators is that they are very simplistic and the plans for those are available. 

‘They could be made by any number of manufacturers. Firms such as Rolls-Royce, JCB and Unipart for example definitely have the have the expertise needed to quickly ramp up manufacture of these devices.’

Manufacturing the older units would be relatively easy as the blueprints and instruction manuals still exist on how to build, use and maintain the equipment.  

However, while the experts praise the response of the country’s engineers and the collective entrepreneurial spirit, they caution the need to ensure the equipment is up to medical standard and no corners are cut in the bid to manufacture potentially the life-saving equipment,   

Dr Messe urges people to remember there are caveats to the rapid mass production of a piece of sophisticated medical equipment. 

‘Medical device regulations are akin to aerospace in terms of the precision, checks and verification. 

‘It is absolutely imperative in the development of these pieces of technology to put patient safety first. 

‘Every piece of medical equipment has to go through rigorous testing and this may hamstring the endeavour, even of manufacturing simpler machines.’

‘We can not afford to put patients at risk and that is going to be of great importance. While the entrepreneurial spirit is wonderful it must be tempered to ensure the patient comes first and that takes time.

‘It would be wholly wrong to throw the rule book out of the window and ensuring they do they right thing is an important part of the process.’

While there are no shortcuts, it is clear Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock are desperate to ensure the country has as many functional ventilators as possible. 

Professor Delpy says the risk of accidentally manufacturing a faulty piece of equipment that results in the death of a patient is a major concern for businesses considering picking up the premier’s call to arms. 

He says: ‘Legally, if you supply a ventilator to the health service you need warranties and health insurance and it seems unlikely companies would want to take on the risk. 

‘The government would have to cover the liabilities for whoever they ask to supply these components.’ 

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