Research centre plays crucial role in national ventilator challenge

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The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in Rotherham answered a call to action by providing augmented reality headsets to speed up production of ventilators.

The futuristic headsets will enable skilled aerospace and automotive production line operatives to rapidly switch to the manufacture of 10,000 life-saving medical ventilators.

Headsets were rushed from the AMRC to sites across the UK last week at the same time as its R&D facility in North Wales was turned into a production facility for the devices.

The augmented reality equipment is critical to the success of an industrial consortium which has united to accelerate production of ventilators before the pandemic risks overwhelming the ability of NHS staff to treat a surge in patients with the virus.

The industrial consortium, Ventilator Challenge UK, came together after Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a plea for an additional 50,000 ventilators to be delivered to the NHS within a matter of weeks.

AMRC head of digital, Professor Rab Scott, said: “What we are seeing in South Yorkshire and in North Wales is part of a truly nationwide and global response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Under the leadership of the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult, the AMRC and the Nuclear AMRC, are at the heart of a campaign to deliver the additional ventilators, the first of which will be coming off production lines around the UK as early as next week.

Within hours of the Prime Minister laying down his ventilator challenge, the AMRC and Nuclear AMRC were taking scores of requests for assistance, not just for ventilators, but also for medical equipment such as face masks and swabs and vials for Covid-19 test kits.

Manufacture of the ventilators will be scaled up at AMRC Cymru in Broughton in North Wales in collaboration with automotive giant Ford.

To enable rapid acceleration of production, HoloLens headsets will be used to fast track the training of operatives, while allowing them to keep a safe distance from one another in line with Covid-19 guidance.

The equipment – initially designed for use in gaming – will be delivered with additional software provided by an AMRC partner, the US-based global augmented reality specialist PTC.

Professor Scott added: “HoloLens and mobile devices will run PTC’s Vuforia Expert Capture app to create and share training content, giving workers guided instructions in how to set up the new production processes needed to make the ventilators.

“In addition, Microsoft’s Dynamics 365 Remote Assist will offer hands-free video calling on the HoloLens to let operators collaborate with experts on a PC or mobile device, harnessing immersive digital tech to tackle a real-world pandemic.”

The AMRC’s Machining Group has also deployed staff to make critical components based on designs from Luton-based Smiths Medical, to scale-up its tried-and-tested ventilators, already used in hospitals and ambulances.

Phil Kirkland, engineering manager at AMRC, said: “It was an incredible team effort and shows just how agile and responsive we can be, even in the middle of a global lockdown.

“With just four days to turn things around, a ten-strong team including essential maintenance, first aid and fire marshal cover worked to a combination of 2D drawings and 3D models with support provided remotely by engineering and management staff.”

Component parts were manufactured from aluminium and brass supported by Sheffield-based Ian Cocker Precision Engineering.

Kirkland added: “Further work was carried out over the weekend verifying critical parts from 3D models to the 2D drawings to ensure there were no discrepancies.

“This work was carried out remotely by a team of six engineers from the Machining Group, Integrated Manufacturing Group, the Design and Prototype Group and the Nuclear AMRC.”

Professor Koen Lamberts, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, said: “We are incredibly proud of how our staff have risen to this challenge by supporting the design and manufacture of new ventilators and other vital medical equipment at this time of national emergency.

“The Ventilator Challenge UK consortium is a prime example of what can be achieved when industry, academia and the government work together.”