Nissan And McLaren Are Building Ventilators For The NHS

With the Coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the UK, the NHS is in desperate need of ventilators. Now car manufacturers, including Nissan and McLaren, are stepping in to help…

An Urgent Need For Ventilators 

Last Monday, the Government confirmed that the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) had issued ventilator blueprints to manufacturing companies. Some of these included the likes of Rolls-Royce, Air Bus and Jaguar Land Rover. Its message was simple, ‘help us assemble some 20,000 ventilators to ward off the Coronavirus pandemic’. These devices are essential in treating patients experiencing the critical stages of Covid-19; during which respiratory function is weakened and breathing difficulties present themselves. For some patients, especially the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions, ventilators can be life-saving.

Designing and assembling ventilators, however, is no simple matter. Specialist components and materials are required during the manufacturing process. Jens Hallek, CEO at leading ventilator manufacturer Hamilton Medical, is sceptical that car manufacturers will be able to produce the machines. He said, “these are extremely sensitive machines with not only a lot of hardware, but also a lot of software. If one of the components does not work correctly, the whole machine shuts down and cannot be used anymore”. His company currently makes 220 ventilators a week, but hopes to double that amount over the coming weeks. Despite his reservations, automakers appear to be undaunted.

Nissan and McLaren Step In To Help 

As it stands, the UK has around 5,000 adult ventilators and 900 specifically for children. Matt Hancock, the Health Minister, says the NHS will need many more times these numbers if the service is to cope. McLaren is allegedly already making the medical equipment; specifically offering its design expertise to the effort. Nissan, on the other hand, is leading the fight on the manufacturing side; using its vast assembly infrastructure in the country. They follow the example of other automakers who have already pledged their support. Vauxhall, for instance, has stated that it can (and will) offer support with 3D printing. Meanwhile, both Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover have said they’ll assist the government. The specific details of their assistance, however, has not yet been announced.

But It’s Not Easy

The pledge of support from the nation’s automotive industry will no doubt attract admiration from the public. But shifting production from cars to ventilators is no easy task. Some experts have expressed frank views on the feasibility of the plan. Nick Oliver, automotive industry expert and management professor at the University of Edinburgh, has gone as far to call the schemes ‘naive’. He said, “I think the idea of automotive manufacturers or indeed any manufacturer that is not well-versed in the production of medical devices somehow quickly retooling and making an alternative product is very naïve”. He added, “there is no product that I can think of in the automotive industry that has to move air and oxygen around in a similar way to a ventilator”.

Is Good Will Enough?

There are other issues, too. Medical equipment, including ventilators, need to be thoroughly tested and licensed. Automakers won’t have a license or a familiarity with testing procedures. One way around this, Patricia Connolly, professor of bioengineering and director of the Strathclyde Institute of Medical Devices at the University of Strathclyde has said, would be for car companies to be contracted to produce select components. She explained, “the way that this could be done is if a current manufacturer in the UK who has the proper certification for their device was to subcontract to another production line, then that manufacturer could take responsibility for the production of the device”.

This seems to be the government’s plan; using pre-existing manufacturing infrastructure to ramp up ventilator production. But there’s another snag, how will automakers assemble ventilators if they’ve already had to close due to social isolation? For now, the goodwill is there. But goodwill won’t go very far without a comprehensive plan.

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