Tackling the Ventilator Challenge
In Spring 2020, the UK government issued a nationwide “call to arms” to produce medical ventilators needed to treat critically-ill COVID-19 patients. A consortium of industrial, technology and engineering businesses from the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors came together to manufacture 15,000 units. Amongst them, MPB Industries stepped up to the challenge to supply flowmeters – a critical component of ventilators.
What role did MPB specifically play in the UK Ventilator Challenge?
MPB had to produce all the variable area flowmeters needed to produce 15,000 ventilators from the medical device company Penlon. This comprised of 30,000 flowmeter tubes in total. We also produced several hundred flowmeters that were used to check the performance of the ventilators whilst going through the production lines.
Why are flowmeters needed for ventilators?
To put it simply: When used in ventilators, one tube delivers oxygen and the other supplies air to the patient. Actually, a variable area flowmeter is a very simple device. A float is placed inside a tube that has an internal taper and as more gas or fluid passes through it the higher the float rises. The flow rate is indicated by a permanently fired enamel scale that we apply to the outside of the tube.
In practice, the tolerances involved to produce these instruments are down to microns and both the glass tube and float are made to these exacting standards.
What are the main challenges in producing and supplying a product that helps in the fight against COVID-19?
The project was of such a large scale that it involved everyone in our company and we called on the assistance of five engineers from Ford to join us for the duration of the project.
Typically, we would produce around 50 pairs of these particular flow tubes in a normal working day. However, by developing more tooling, improving production processes and working a 2 x 10 hour shift pattern for six days per week, we were able to increase this output 10-fold to 500 pairs per day.
When the original order for 10,000 tubes was trebled to 30,000, it was a relief to hear that SCHOTT could move the production slot forward and deliver the glass tubing in time for us to be able to keep up with the three assembly lines that were building ventilators 24 hours a day for 12 weeks.
Why do you use glass tubing for the flowmeters?
We use glass because of its transparency, the fact that we can form and cut it to our requirement and add a permanently fired enamel scale.
We find that the glass tube that SCHOTT provide us with is dimensionally accurate and stable all while being scratch-resistant, which is important for a visual instrument. Nearly every product that we produce features a glass tube for measuring gas or liquid flows or capacities.