Saving Lives Through the COVID-19 Ventilator Program

Everyone remembers the early weeks of 2020; nobody wants to go back there.  As COVID began to -quite literally- suck all the oxygen out of the room, demand for mechanical ventilators exploded.  This was just as countries began to go into lockdown and supply chains became unreliable around the world.  In response, Ottawa announced $1.1 Billion to be spent on producing a Canadian-made ventilator.  The goal, according to Prime Minister Trudeau, was to minimize the supply chain issues by keeping suppliers as close as possible.  No one knew how COVID was going to play out, but ventilators were playing a big part in saving lives, so it made sense to plan for high demand as the pandemic unfolded.

Five companies were selected to develop and deliver 30,000 ventilators.  MacFab was brought in to work with one of the primary contractors.  The program was announced in early April.  The first devices were expected within a few weeks and the entire project was supposed to be completed in a few months.  If wishes were horses, as they say…

Ventilators are complex machines.  They have to be able to provide the right amount of air with the right amount of oxygen precisely when needed to avoid putting stress on the patient’s organs.  Given the companies were designing these units from the ground up and many had no experience with medical manufacturing, that deadline was bound to be optimistic.

That’s where MacFab’s experience and specialized facilities proved to be vital.  When one set of parts came in below spec, MacFab was called in to save the day.  The parts were reworked to bring them up to specifications and inspected as we would any medical components.  The parts had been manufactured, cleaned, and packaged after a fashion, but not to industry standards, so we cleaned them as we do all medical components and packaged them properly.  That sort of thing is bound to happen when a shop that isn’t accustomed to machining for the medical industry suddenly finds itself dealing with far more stringent requirements than usual.

Along with our own production quotas, MacFab was called on again when problems arose with parts provided by another vendor.  In a similar situation, we had to jump in and rework a batch of components which weren’t up to specifications.  This second batch was potentially dangerous.  Burrs and debris had been left in the parts.  Had they not been removed; they could have wound up inside a patient’s lungs.  There was also a hazard of the debris reacting with the oxygen and creating toxic gasses in the airflow.  MacFab was again able to bring the parts up to spec, clean, and package them according to industry standards.  Macfab was selected to manufacture all the parts for the next batch.

Ventilators rely on diaphragms to pump air in and out.  Early product tests found problems with the diaphragms failing.  Once again MacFab was called in to solve the problem.  It turned out the diaphragms weren’t originally designed for ventilators.  They again had debris and manufacturing flaws that were preventing the diaphragms from sealing.  Once our engineers isolated and solved this problem, another turned up immediately.  Our engineers were able to demonstrate that the diaphragm and the valves they interact with were incompatible.  MacFab has extensive ventilator experience.  That was the only way we could have spotted and solved that issue.  Our engineers redesigned the valve to function properly with the diaphragms.

Largely due to the expertise provided by MacFab, the project was a success, delivering 10,000 ventilators in just a few months.  Most of them are warehoused, as they weren’t needed in the pandemic.  Some have been donated to other countries that ran into shortages.  As the Prime Minister said when the project was launched, it’s better to have them and not need them than the other way around.  The project shows the crucial importance of having a variety of highly specialized knowledge and capabilities.  It also shows that even in times of crisis, first rate skills and standards can still be applied to make a difference.  MacFab is proud to be part of that difference.