The government’s call for UK manufacturers to produce ventilators to cope with the coronavirus outbreak has raised the question of whether catering equipment and ventilation companies could be in a position to provide support.
One foodservice equipment manufacturer confirmed it had already been contacted by the Government Business Support Line, asking if it would like more information on the matter.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said this week that the UK has around 5,000 ventilators but needed many times more than that.
“We are saying that if you produce a ventilator then we will buy it. No number is too high. The ventilators are relatively complicated pieces of kit but they are not so complicated that the advanced manufacturing that this country is so good at won’t be able to turn those production lines over to making them,” stated Mr Hancock.
Nick Baldwin, marketing manager at UK ventilation manufacturer Mansfield Pollard, said its operations team had not ruled out the possibility of being able to help in some way.
“Without seeing a detailed spec, we are obviously only hypothesising, but in theory, the skill sets we have here – design engineers, controls engineers and our in-house manufacturing capabilities – there shouldn’t be any reason why not.
“I think there still exists that British manufacturing spirit which has the desire and drive to solve problems, especially in problematic and unprecedented times.”
Parry Catering Equipment, in the Midlands, also confirmed to FEJ that it would be willing to help the effort in any way it could, but managing director Mark Banton noted that such a specific type of manufacture was probably too far removed from its core activities to be beneficial. He suspects the majority of catering equipment manufacturers would be in a similar position.
“There are probably a good number of manufacturers in the UK who have operations and products which have parallels with the manufacture of ventilators. However, very few of these will be capable of turning on manufacture and supply of ventilators quickly and without substantial investment in time, management, training and cash.
“Production of this type of equipment will be stringently regulated, controlled, require specialist testing and have very high levels of adherence to quality control for all internal operations and the supply chain.”
Mr Banton said there could be some volume of sub-assembly parts that could be passed on though, particularly where the skill levels required are basic and testing is carried out later in the supply chain by others more set up for this work.”
Neil Richards, managing director of Wales-based manufacturer Metcalfe Catering, agreed that judging whether catering equipment manufacturers could play a part in the government’s call to arms was a difficult one.
He said: “I think that all manufacturers of catering equipment in the UK would have the skill set and facility to ‘assemble’ new ventilators if they were provided with the parts in a ‘kit’ format and Metcalfe would be no different. We would be glad to help if we could and produce ventilators instead of potato peelers for a while.
“However, I assume that ventilators for use in the NHS and in intensive care are quite technically advanced pieces of kit and would need to be made in a sterile environment or a dust free/sealed factory. Of the catering equipment factories that I know of in the UK, that sort of facility does not exist.
“Can you imagine the uproar if a patient died as a result of an infection picked up as a result of factory debris or dust in the ventilator?”
Keith Warren, chief executive of the Foodservice Equipment Association (FEA), said: “The need to tool up to meet the need will be complex and not as straightforward as many suggest – tooling, component supply and the need for ‘medical’ manufacturing conditions mean that this may not be as easy as first presented.
“However, we have innovative, flexible and resilient businesses which are well run by strong Boards and management teams and if any company is interested then FEA would be pleased to follow it up with government on their behalf.”
Concerns over patents and the actual manufacturing environment – rather than the skillset – certainly seem to pose the biggest obstacle to industry involvement.
And that view is endorsed by expert Dr Helen Meese, vice chair of the biomedical division of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. She confirmed that ventilation equipment, like all medical devices, is very strictly regulated to ensure patient safety.
“We must be clear that while many engineering companies and individuals have come forward to support this initiative, it will take several weeks if not months to ensure the right processes are in place to increase production of these precision parts.
“The quickest way for the UK to do this is for existing specialist manufacturers to share their drawings, specifications and expertise with non-medical manufacturers so they can make the parts to the right quality standards.”
Yesterday, Inspiration Healthcare Group, a small UK healthcare firm, revealed it had signed a £1.25m deal with the NHS to supply ventilators immediately.
The Sussex-based company did not reveal the total number of ventilators it has agreed to produce.