By Rachel Gould - Engineering Student @ Jesus College, Cambridge
The battle against COVID-19 might seem medical, but thinking about it more closely, engineers have been vital in tackling some of the biggest problem we have faced during this pandemic. Scientists are developing treatments, vaccines and tests every day. However, this work is useless to the public if it cannot be accessed by everyone. Engineers have played a vital role in the scaling of production of ventilators, PPE, and vaccinations, to make this technology more available.
In the early stages of the pandemic, the UK faced a ventilator shortage as hospitals reached capacity. Current ventilator manufacturers were working hard, but they were in no way equipped for the demand. The solution was something called business pivoting, which involves using the skills of your employees and the facilities available to your business to ‘pivot’ and produce a different product or provide a different service to deal with a change in demand. This involved big businesses such as Airbus, Mercedes, Rolls Royce, Tesla, and many more offering their facilities to help mass produce thousands of ventilators in the space of weeks to meet new requirements.
These engineering companies realised that there was no requirement for cars or planes during a pandemic, but the skills and resources could still be used in a different way. The incredible pace at which the vaccines were developed and approved is a testament to the fantastic research being done across the world, however, a vaccine is no good unless it can be administered in a mass immunisation situation. The supply chain needs to be able to cope, suitable storage must be available, facilities are needed for production etc, which can be modelled by engineers during trials as to be ready for rollout, and is hugely helped by ‘business pivoting’, as discussed earlier.
Producing enough ventilators and vaccines has been possible due to the facilities available to us in the UK. However, in places such as Africa, where there are not huge factories and large engineering companies, the manufacture of thousands of ventilators or vaccines is just not possible in the same way. A team at the University of Cambridge set out to tackle this issue by developing a cheap, easy to manufacture open-source ventilator to make the equipment accessible to more people. This is an example of a situation where engineers have focused less on the technology but more about how it can be delivered to a wider range of people, which requires critical thinking and logistical consideration.
On top of ventilators and vaccines, there are many other examples of rapid scaling, one of which is the conversion of eleven locations in the UK to ‘nightingale hospitals’. Engineers analysed the spacing of beds, the restrictions in terms of how much energy could be provided with the existing infrastructure, the feasibility of installing medical gas systems, all the time liaising with NHS staff to ensure they were providing exactly what they required. With the help of local contractors and the military, produced 4000 beds in 72 hours, and the Excel centre in London was converted to a temporary hospital in the space of 10 days, and ten more locations followed in the coming months.
Projects had to be made efficient in order to respond with the speed needed to tackle a pandemic while also ensuring products could be scaled up, as the situation the world finds itself in with the coronavirus pandemic relies on technology being accessible on a very large scale, not just to researchers. This is a huge logistical challenge that engineers took on.