Industry, science, engineering and design have joined forces to help fight the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Working in teams and with modern manufacturing methods, they are collectively and rapidly designing, producing and distributing COVID-19 medical respiratory devices and face shields to help with shortages in hospitals around the world. With no time for peer review, at incredible speed epidemiologists around the world are sending each other papers, helping the medical world understand the virus and for industry to design accordingly.
The mood is akin to that of war time, when the urgency of the occasion creates a hotbed of ideas and accelerates the speed of change. During World War II, away from the front line, architects, engineers, designers, scientists made life-saving inventions from their studios and on assembly lines. Some of the ideas led to further possibilities in time of peace. Just think of Charles and Ray Eames’ Wartime Leg Splint and how it helped push the possibilities of the new plyform material pioneered by the American design couple. Similarly, the examples of the last few weeks show the positive power of design and innovation, of how through trust and teamwork industry can work collectively towards progress.
With car production facilities largely halted all around the world, many automotive makers and racing providers are turning their efforts and engineering knowhow to making medical devices, COVID-19 ventilators and safe transportation systems. In Spain, the Seat Martorell facility that produces the Leon has been transformed to manufacture automated ventilators for local healthcare authorities. Lamborghini has also said it will be producing respiratory devices from Maranello, Italy.
In the UK, a collective of Formula One racing teams are using their expertise in high-end engineering and advanced design, materials and manufacturing to make and deliver medical ventilators to fight COVID-19. Working under the umbrella Project Pitlane, this is a mighty force to include McLaren F1, Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1, ROKiT Williams Racing, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing, Haas F1, Renault DP World F1 and BWT Racing Point F1.
The teams are also working alongside the Ventilator Challenge UK Consortium, a collective backed by some of the country’s leading technology, education and engineering firms. The list (which keeps expanding) includes Airbus, BAE Systems, Meggitt, Rolls-Royce, Thales, Ultra Electronics from aerospace, and McLaren Group and Ford from automotive. Microsoft, Accenture and Dell are among the all-important service providers who enable all this to happen.
So far, the UK government has ordered some 10,000 ventilators from the Consortium for the National Health Service, the country’s main medical service, with a further 30,000 devices to be produced to meet demand during the anticipated spike as the spread of the virus peaks.
With production on hold at the McLaren Group UK facility, teams normally assigned to crash testing the sports cars are now testing ventilator trolleys to ensure they meet clinical guidelines. Here, design, engineering, electronics and rapid prototyping expertise from across the company are involved with the project. “Within McLaren Automotive, we are building test boxes to test the sub-assemblies throughout the ventilator build process as well as the final machine,” a company spokesperson explains. “We have crash tested the trolleys that one of the designs will sit on and will be building these.” Asked if the company needed to change the tooling and methods to work with medical ventilators, he says the McLaren team “is used to super-fast turnaround of components and we have CNC milling and machining capabilities to assist.”
Elsewhere, working with University College London engineers, Mercedes AMG’s powertrain division has helped design and develop a new medical device that delivers oxygen to the lungs without needing a ventilator. China and Italy are already using these Continuous Positive Airway Pressure systems and even though some of the UK hospitals have the device, they are in short supply. So far 40 of the new CPAPs have been delivered to University College London Hospital and to three other medical services. And if trials go well, Mercedes-AMG-HPP will produce up to 1,000 machines a day.
Similarly, in the US a collective of leading architects are teaming up to use their knowledge for design and innovation, of creative thinking, in the battle against COVID-19. Over in New York, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, Kohn Pedersen Fox and Handel Architects are currently working together to manufacture face shields based on a design from open-source files by Erik Cederberg from the Swedish firm 3DVerkstan.
“In response to the acute and escalating need for personal protection equipment here in New York City and the plea of governor Andrew Cuomo and being personally reached out to by doctors and nurses from both Cornell and Mount Sinai Hospitals, we had the possibility to mobilize our 3D printing and modelmaking capabilities to make this scarce life-saving equipment,” explains Kai-Uwe Bergmann, partner at BIG, via email.
He tells me the firm’s New York model shop managers, Bernardo Schuhmacher and Carlos Castillo, have been spearheading the 3D printing effort these past few days. Cederberg’s face shield design is purposely simple: a laser-cut clear plastic shield covers the face and a 3D printed visor band fits across the forehead. Whereas the original file is for a single element, the architecture team has further optimized this for high volume production.
Bergmann explains: “We have successfully updated this to a stacked version that is able to print 50 units within a 24-hour cycle per printer. We currently have 10 Ultimaker FDM printers producing nearly 5,000 a week here in New York,” he says adding that from next week, production will expand to BIG’s London and Copenhagen offices as they established further ties to medical institutions in Europe.
I’m interested to know how findings from the process of making these face shields is impacting on the architecture firm’s overall design thinking. Bjarke Ingels, founder and creative director of BIG, tells me he is interested in the idea of distributed just-in-time manufacturing and its potentials that are being put to test now. “Just like computers went from business machines to PC’s to handheld devices, the internet went from institutional to businesses and internet cafes to cable and wireless, perhaps manufacturing is in the process to move from purpose-built factories to general capability and eventually to the maker hub on the block or the Personal Fabricator.”
In much the same way that World War II spearheaded some incredible progress in design, materials and manufacturing, perhaps shortcomings of the traditional manufacturing and supply chain during this COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the need for rapid change in this area. Ingels says it reveals the advantages of flexible making which exists in many sectors that are not necessarily associated with the manufacturing industry – areas such as architecture and design. “As with distributed computing,” he offers, “perhaps distributed manufacturing has the potentials we haven’t yet thought through – the cloud of the material world – that allows instant and omnipresent translation from data to matter.”
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