31 Mar 2020
Coronavirus: Ventilator grand challenge can save lives
No matter how successful social-distancing measures are, it’s almost certain Australia will need more of the one device able to keep alive those desperately ill with COVID-19: ventilators.
Ventilators aren’t like other medical supplies in short supply that can be easily made in new facilities or by companies that can rapidly shift from making clothes or sunglasses to masks and face shields. They are complicated electro-mechanical devices subject to strong regulation and testing because they have to be safe for humans use.
Existing manufacturers, including some of the world’s largest medical device companies, are finding it hard to scale up production massively because it is structured around pre-pandemic demand, and their designs are complex and require inputs now in short supply.
There is also the simple fact their designs are valuable intellectual property that companies won’t simply surrender. And each nation that produces ventilators has its own urgent needs. As The New York Times reports, “Some European governments are deploying wartime-mobilisation tactics to get factories churning out more ventilators — and to stop domestic companies from exporting them.”
What’s the solution? A Ventilator Grand Challenge, funded and run by Australia’s government. Already there are efforts by companies and designers to come up with novel and simple ventilator designs. That’s with and without the co-operation of current manufacturers with their expertise.
British inventor James Dyson has used his vacuum technology knowledge and his firm’s advanced manufacturing skills to design a new hospital ventilator in 10 days, and is now proposing to supply Britain’s National Health Service with 15,000 of them at speed. Boris Johnson has made things easier by having the NHS publish specifications for rapidly produced ventilators.
Toyota is retooling its plants to make face masks and ventilators. GE Health, 3M and Ford are working together to produce ventilators in the US under Project Apollo, named after the Apollo 13 moon mission. That mission resulted in what Gizmodo magazine has called “the greatest hack in history”. A small group of NASA engineers and scientists, working with the astronauts, designed and built within hours an oxygen scrubber from parts available in the damaged Apollo spacecraft, achieving what seemed impossible because the astronauts’ lives were at stake.
It’s not only big companies acting creatively. That US powerhouse of innovation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is providing open-source ventilator designs to allow anyone to be able to manufacture them.
Three big issues face Australia. First, successful efforts overseas in rapid ventilator production will be targeted, understandably, to meet their own domestic needs. To benefit, we’d have to join a queue.
Second, much of this research, design and manufacturing effort is disjointed, with local initiatives by particular firms and individuals scattered around the world. That means the most viable approach for Australia may well be missed because we don’t know about it.
The last problem is that open-source ventilator designs or proprietary designs of existing manufacturers such as GE Health will probably use a set of inputs and components that are in short supply or simply not available to Australian manufacturers in these disrupted economic times. A Ventilator Grand Challenge led by our government could solve these issues.
If Australia provides a prize, say $50m, for the best design and production proposal, it will bring a focus to uncoordinated efforts here and overseas.
The challenge can be open to any combination of individuals and companies that can demonstrate a viable ventilator design able to be manufactured within weeks — in Australia from locally available components. Having a top 10 selection that leads to more than one ventilator design being produced would be optimal, given the urgency.
This requires regulatory change to fast-track Australian approval of designs.
Prizemoney in the face of such existential human need may seem misplaced, but it’s best to recognise that, along with humanitarian motives, designers and manufacturers will also respond to incentives to devote their ingenuity, time and resources to this effort. And financial reward will drive the partnerships we need between designers and Australian manufacturers.
This collaboration is critical. Without designers working with existing Australian advanced manufacturing firms that know what supplies they can and can’t depend on, the best open-source design will simply not be able to be manufactured here. That’s why the UK Dyson example is workable — because the designers know what the company they are working with can do.
The good news is that Australia has the required medical research and design expertise, with companies such as ResMed and Cochlear. That combines with capable government scientific research and regulatory agencies such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the CSIRO and the Defence Science and Technology Group. We also have a strong advanced manufacturing base. This includes the precision engineering and automotive supplies sector, and some of the big Defence companies with good national supplier relationships, such as ASC, formerly the Australian Submarine Corporation.
That’s a design and manufacturing ecosystem with a diverse supply chain of local small and medium firms that will be delighted to get work and to contribute to an urgent national priority.
So, let’s see a funded, urgent Ventilator Grand Challenge announced as one of the next acts of our new national cabinet. It will save Australian lives and, as the nation moves out of the crisis phase of the pandemic, we will be in a position to help others in our region and across the world with these lifesaving devices.