Futuristic headsets programmed to enable skilled aerospace and automotive production line operatives to rapidly switch to the manufacture of 10,000 life-saving medical ventilators were rushed from the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in Rotherham to sites across the UK last week at the same time as its recently opened 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 a powerful industrial consortium which has come together to accelerate the production of thousands of ventilators before the Covid-19 pandemic reaches its peak and risks overwhelming the ability of NHS doctors and nurses to treat a sudden surge in patients suffering from the virus.
The industrial consortium, Ventilator Challenge UK, came together after the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, made a plea for an additional 50,000 ventilators to be delivered to the NHS within a matter of weeks. “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,” says the AMRC’s Head of Digital, Professor Rab Scott.
Under the leadership of the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult, the AMRC and the Nuclear AMRC, are at the heart of a multi-faceted campaign to deliver the additional ventilators.
The AMRC is a network of world-leading research and innovation centres working with manufacturing companies of any size from around the globe. It has multimillion pound facilities on the Advanced Manufacturing Park (AMP) in Rotherham, as does the Nuclear AMRC.
Dick Elsy, CEO of the HVM Catapult, which has seven centres across the UK including the AMRC and the Nuclear AMRC, said: “What we are seeing here is a truly collaborative, international effort, with the best and brightest engineering and manufacturing brains coming together to rally all their resources in response to the distress signal from the NHS.”
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. To make sense of this, the Nuclear AMRC generated a communications log to streamline the most appropriate support by identifying those with the capability to best produce key products and sub-level components.
“This information was refined and characterised to fit with the government’s prescribed classification criteria. In the two weeks following the challenge, the Nuclear AMRC registered over 90 enquiries. These were then filtered to produce a focused and directly tangible suite of proposals to assess support from both within the Nuclear AMRC, the AMRC, our stakeholder community and the Fit for Nuclear supply-chain network,” said Professor Steve Jones, Chief Technology Officer at the Nuclear AMRC.
To enable rapid acceleration of production at AMRC Cymru in Broughton in North Wales, 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. Microsoft tasked Professor Scott with coordinating their deployment across the country in the response to the government’s Ventilator Challenge. The high-tech 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.
“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,” said Professor Scott.
Rather than putting wearers of the headset in a fully computer-generated world, as virtual reality does, HoloLens allows users to place 3D digital models in the room alongside them; users can walk around the objects they create and interact with them using gestures, gaze and voice.
At the same time as Professor Scott was putting the finishing touches to the HoloLens deployment, the AMRC’s Machining Group, was scrambling staff working from home back to the Factory of the Future shop floor 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, Interim Head for the Machining Group, 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.
“Further work was carried out over the weekend verifying critical parts from 3D models to the 2D drawings to ensure that 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,” Kirkland added.
The products proved out by the AMRC and the Nuclear AMRC will now be manufactured at assembly sites across the UK.