One of the major challenges for the UK in facing the Covid-19 pandemic is the production of ventilators, to keep patients with respiratory difficulties out of intensive care. The medical equipment manufacturer Penlon, based in Abingdon, already supplies the NHS with machines used by anaesthetists in operating theatres. After it was clear that the demand for ventilators was going to increase dramatically, the company developed a simpler device that can be mass produced and used on a ward as a ventilator: breathing for a patient when they are unable to do it themselves.
Penlon is part of a consortium, VentilatorChallengeUK, of over 20 companies including Airbus, Ford and McLaren, who will produce the ventilators on a large scale, as featured by the BBC and the Guardian. Before the tens of thousands of ventilators can be used by the NHS, they need to be tested and calibrated, to ensure they can be delivered under the company's medical licence.
With their high level of technical skill, STFC staff members will deliver training in how to test the ventilators to some 300 staff from the other companies in the collaboration, who will then carry out the testing at Penlon's facility, and others nearby.
The first four 'super trainers' from across the RAL campus; John Crawford (ISIS), Angela George (DLS), Phil Rice (CLF) and Mark Anderson (RAL Space) spent the weekend at Penlon developing a training manual that will then be used by the STFC expert trainers. During the evenings this week, these four will use their manual to train 30 other STFC staff members, to ensure that all are capable of training others by the time the ventilators come off the production line.
The test they will be training people to carry out is 30-40 minutes long and involves testing the pressure and air flow through the ventilator while it inflates/deflates a set of steel “lungs". It is important for the STFC to ensure that all testers understand the strictness of the method and the clear boundaries that need to be followed when testing.
Mark Anderson, RAL Space 'super trainer' said, “This has been a daunting but very rewarding task. To be invited to be part of a team of people and businesses that have been able to redesign and develop a ventilator that will be used to save lives is fantastic. For me it goes to show that with a common goal the UK can pull its business skills together to overcome a challenge. To mass produce thousands of ventilators in weeks is totally unbelievable. My team and many other STFC technicians will be able to do their bit fighting this outbreak and saving people's lives."
Training this many people this quickly is always challenging, but the team are having to ensure they maintain social distancing while doing so, to make sure they stay safe and well. This restricts the number of people who can be trained as trainers at one time. There is also currently only one prototype that they can use for this training: one is with the NHS, and another will be arriving at Penlon on Wednesday and then they should be able to speed up the rollout of this training.
Prof Chris Mutlow, RAL Space Director, said: “Working from home is harder for the technicians who usually work in our labs, workshops and cleanrooms at RAL. So I'm proud to see them adapt their skills and contribute their expertise and attention to detail as part of the national effort to support the NHS."