Comment: the lessons learned from industry's ventilator push

4 min read

High Value Manufacturing Catapult's Rosa Wilkinson  reflects on the wider lessons to be learned from industry's collaborative effort to ensure that the NHS had access to the ventilators it needed to treat COVID-19 patients.


If you had to pick the word or phrase of 2020, what would it be?  For many, it will be obviously COVID-related, perhaps pandemic, lockdown, or social distancing.  But for me, the word of 2020 will always be collaboration - the vital ingredient that, in the first wave, allowed an outstanding array of UK engineering and medical talents to reassure the nation that, no matter how fast the infection spread, there would always be an intensive care ventilator available when needed.

Why, we asked, can’t we work like this all the time?  The truth is that if we really want to, we can

Without collaboration, the Ventilator Challenge UK Consortium (VCUK), of which I am proud to have been a small part, could not have delivered at the pace that it did. As coronavirus began its spread through the nation in March last year, it was clear that urgent action was needed to give the NHS the ventilators needed to treat patients struggling to breathe. In response to a desperate call to arms from the Prime Minister, Dick Elsy, Chief Executive of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, stepped forward, ready to leverage the deep relationships the Catapult enjoys across the engineering community.

Prima ESO2 ventilators ready to leave the Penlon facility

The results from the Ventilator Challenge UK Consortium were extraordinary.  In a just a few weeks the team took a modified ventilator design from an idea to a regulator-approved reality. The first unit was produced just four weeks after the Prime Minister issued his challenge.   Penlon, the medical devices company at the heart of the Consortium’s work, was however used to producing only 30 – 40 of its anaesthesia devices a month. Production was transformed.   With the industrial might of the Consortium behind it, output was boosted to over 400 ventilators a day. Support from Ford, Airbus, McLaren, and Siemens along with a who’s who of engineering talent in the UK, enabled the Consortium to deliver in just 12 weeks more ventilators than Penlon would usually produce in 20 years.  That’s what great collaboration can do for you.

So are there things you could take from our experience that could help you with your future collaborations?  I think there are.

Clarity of Purpose

The Consortium’s purpose was clear: save lives! That powerful goal appealed to the intrinsic human motivations of every member of our team.  We knew delay could cost lives. Not all innovation collaborations will have such a compelling purpose, but every effective collaboration will have at its heart an abiding belief in a common cause, backed up across the whole team by a strong and effectively communicated vision and objective.

Real Openness – Liberated Information flows and honesty

All organisations talk about their desire for openness.  It can be the difference between a project that works well and failure.

From the first, the VCUK team worked to make sure that openness was real and not just a buzz word.  No project data was private, systems were created to make everything accessible, the whole culture was about speaking up and outing problems and triumphs in equal measure. Daily top-team meetings meant everyone had early sight of progress, a chance to celebrate or take action. Never before have I seen such comfort with honesty and openness.  It made a real difference.  It meant that the right talents could cluster quickly around difficulties and solutions were found fast. In practice one issue was captured and shared every 90 minutes.  At any point in time the team was managing around 140 live issues. 50% were sorted within two days and all critical issues were resolved within 22 hours, 7 days per week, 24 hours a day. It has transformed my perception of how project management can work.

The Right People

That ability to overcome difficulties – supply shortages, changing specification requirements, socially distance staff training, quality control issues – also reflected the diverse talents of the team that Dick Elsy assembled.

Consortium leader, HVM Catapult CEO Dick Elsy

Anyone forging a collaboration must ask what are the skills and the insights we will need?  In the case of the VCUK consortium we needed people who could bring expertise to product design, project management, production line development, quality assurance and regulatory compliance, logistics, supply chain and procurement, human resource management, government relations, media management, information systems and a host of other challenges.  The Consortium approach to draw in the right expertise, regardless of rank, meant we had those skills in people passionate about every element of our work.

Fit for Purpose Structures

That  team of “best athletes” was brought together through fit for purpose structures.  Instead of the laboured and bureaucratic tiered management stuctures we’re all too familiar with, the team self-organised around the key parcels of work with a flat governance structure and meritocratic way of working.  Daily checkpoint meetings supported openness and growth of trust. The whole approach was needs-driven with a commitment to aiming high and failing fast.  Although the Consortium involved people from different organisations and different cultures, the sense of cohesion was huge.

Brilliant Collaborative Communications Inside and Out

Too often project communications – particularly internal communications - are an after-thought with attention focused on deliverable work packages.  More, in collaborative projects, collaboration partners are often left to manage their own internal communications. The VCUK Consortium worked differently. Communications were managed collaboratively with a central team working through comms leads in different partner companies to keep the focus and motivation strong.  Energy levels were boosted with messages from celebs and business figure-heads within and outside the project and positive media handling. The result was an infectious ‘will do,’ energy across the consortium that really delivered at a moment of extreme national need.

For all of us involved in the VCUK Consortium, the project felt like a tipping point.  “Why” we asked, “can’t we work like this all the time?”  The truth is that if we really want to, we can.  Throw out established practices and ask what stops us from doing the right things?.  Start with a compelling purpose and build from that.  Can you do it?  Yes, you can.

Rosa Wilkinson is communications director for the High Value Manufacturing catapult and was a member of the C2I2020 judging panel

High Value Manufacturing catapult is the sponsor of the C2I2020 Aerospace, Defence and Security category