Williams Babypod

The expertise F1 teams can bring in the race to build ventilators

2020 F1 season

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With the Formula 1 season on hold, teams have taken up the cause of tackling the global crisis by helping to develop and produce badly-needed ventilators.

The equipment is in urgent demand due to the pressure on intensive care units as a result of the pandemic. In Britain, the government issued a call to businesses to help produce ventilators for the National Health Service on March 16th. Two days later RaceFans revealed a group of British-based teams had already begun researching how they could help tackle the problem. Ferrari is doing the same in Italy.

The availability of ventilators is of utmost importance in saving the lives of patients in the pandemic. They are used to ensure patients suffering the serious lung problems associated with severe cases of the virus are able to continue breathing.

While the idea of racing teams turning their attention to medical apparatus might seem unusual, it is not new. Formula 1 teams, after all, don’t just race their cars, they build them, and from the front to the back of the grid their engineering standards are extremely high.

One team demonstrated this three years ago by assisting with the development of a specialised transportation system for newborns and infants. The Babypod 20 (pictured) was developed over a two-year period by Advanced Healthcare Technology and Williams Advanced Engineering.

Constructed from carbon fibre – a material pioneered for F1 car building almost 40 years ago – the transport device was designed to withstand a 20G impact while protecting its tiny occupant. Other motorsport-inspired refinements to the design included the addition of high-tensile webbing to further protect the patient. The Babypod 20 was subsequently introduced into the intensive care ambulances used at Great Ormond Street Hospital for children in London.

Williams is one of the teams now involved in efforts to aid with producing ventilators. So is McLaren, which confirmed last week it is “evaluating whether it is able to support the production of ventilators as part of the UK government’s request for help” and is “fully focused on the project”. They are joined by other companies outside F1 including Smiths Group, Meggitt, Airbus, GKN and Nissan.

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Ventilators are in high demand in countries which are experiencing the most severe consequences of the pandemic. In Britain, the government has set a target of increasing production of ventilators to 5,000 per week in order to supply the 30,000 it expects to need over the coming months.

There are many examples of other industries helping the current crisis in different ways. Drinks producers and cosmetics companies are making alcohol-based hand sanitiser, some of which is being given away free of charge.

But the engineering expertise F1 teams can offer has particularly value when our comes to building ventilators. While the technology behind the devices has been around for years, one essential requirement for a ventilator is reliability – they have to keep running.

This challenge is not about the extreme performance most obviously associated with Formula 1 cars, but how teams can adapt their facilities to a different kind of production while maintaining their high standards of engineering.

We have benchmarks for how successfully F1 teams can make complex systems reliable. Take the current generation of extremely complicated V6 hybrid turbo power units as an example. This year 10 teams covered 35,800 kilometres of pre-season testing with these sophisticated units in just six days – something it took them twice as long to do six years ago.

The old motor racing maxim ‘to finish first, you must first finish’ has now found an unexpected real-world application, and a vitally important one.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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18 comments on “The expertise F1 teams can bring in the race to build ventilators”

  1. What worries me is how effective F1 is at making new tech reliable. Just look at the 2014 pre-season testing.

    Still, more ventilators can’t be a bad thing.

    1. @guybrushthreepwood – Well, I wouldn’t take 2014 as an indication that F1 is bad in general at reliability.

      It’s just that F1 is all about a scale that runs from “reliable” to “high performance”, and given it is a sport, they tend to be biased towards performance over reliability*, since that’s where the bigger rewards are.

      F1 is very high-tech, deals with high-precision, and has gifted engineers (e.g. F-duct, DAS, and as much as Ferrari’s fuel sensor shenanigans are bad, technically, it is brilliant). So I’d imagine that deploying them onto such manufacturing will reap good rewards.

      In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised that F1’s constant ability to think fast and think outside the box results in them coming up with improvements to either the design or manufacture of ventilators or such medical equipment. Not that they will implement any design improvements (nor should they), but they can feed it back to the manufacturer for it to run the normal medical regulatory process.

      * Insert joke about the 2014- Renault and 2015-2017 Honda PUs here ;)

      1. All of these efforts are laudable, but I think we have to bring a very healthy sense of scepticism to them. As much expertise as F1 teams have in precision engineering, if they are indeed applying it to create a new and supposedly improved ventilator design, they have no experience in the kind of clinical testing that is necessary to ensure that the device is working properly with patients and not causing harm. Nor are they geared towards the mass manufacturing of devices that is needed at the moment, even if they were to simply produce copies of an existing design.

        Is an untested, potentially harmful ventilator produced by a company with no medical expertise better than none at all? It could well be, but I can’t say I’m entirely confident about it.

        1. if they are indeed applying it to create a new and supposedly improved ventilator design, they have no experience in the kind of clinical testing that is necessary to ensure that the device is working properly with patients and not causing harm

          @markzastrow – Agreed, which is why I said let them have an idea and pass it back to the medical companies, and not to do it:

          Not that they will implement any design improvements (nor should they), but they can feed it back to the manufacturer for it to run the normal medical regulatory process.

          Is an untested, potentially harmful ventilator produced by a company with no medical expertise better than none at all? It could well be, but I can’t say I’m entirely confident about it.

          This is a very good question that has been bothering me from the outset when the news started covering it.

          Fine, we’ve got these hotshot companies (F1 teams, Dyson, Tesla, etc.) all saying they’re going to build ventilators, but how does it get tested on an accelerated schedule? How does the system work if it turns out that some small component in a reasonably long supply chain caused a problem in one ventilator? Worse still, a systemic problem in a batch of ventilators. Let’s up the worrying scenarios – what if a batch of those ventilators were dispatched to a local hospital, so they don’t even have spares of a different make.

          How does liability work, as well? Do doctors say “I’m sorry, but Grandpa Joe is going to die because we don’t have any more GE or Philips ventilators. Do you want to take a chance with a ventilator made by a vacuum cleaner company? If so, sign on the dotted line, it absolves us from liability.” Or, when they triage patients, do they put the hopeless/expectant/black cases on these ventilators on the logic of “Eh, what’s the worst that could happen”.

          I’m not sure if its just a thing about the media focusing on individual companies in the news, but there doesn’t seem to be much reporting of a more cohesive “top-down” plan that stitches together the manufacture, testing/validating, and distribution of these ventilators. I could be wrong, but it seems more a case of one side saying “we forsee a need for 50k ventilators in the next 2-3 months” and the other side eager to help, but without overarching coordination.

          1. @phylyp although Dyson are developing their own version, it seems that a number of those who are developing ventilators are focussing more on ways of producing existing types of ventilators in larger quantities.

            In particular, it seems that most of those companies are focussing on simpler types of ventilators which can be used for those who do not develop the more severe forms of the disease which require an ICU ventilator.

            For example, some companies are focussing on the simpler types of ventilator which are fitted to ambulances – especially since those types of ventilator also require a smaller workforce to operate, and in some cases can be operated by the patient themselves, freeing up staff to focus on the most critical cases.

            Other companies, meanwhile, aren’t focussing so much on producing the machines as a whole – rather, it seems they are looking at ways of producing some of the simpler components, such as couplings, which are in shorter supply and which the more specialised companies are hoping can be produced on a larger scale.

            In the case of Tesla, so far it seems that Tesla hasn’t actually produced their own ventilators yet – the ones which Elon Musk has donated so far were all produced by existing medical companies (purchased from approved medical product suppliers operating from China, as it happens).

  2. There’s been plenty of talk going on about making ventilators, but the only contract the UK government has given so far, is to a manufacturer of over-priced vacuum cleaners, who will make them in the far east. They might get their finger out now Boris Johnson has caught the virus.

    1. Has Boris changed his stance/approach to fighting the disease since he was diagnosed? I’d like to see if that happens.

    2. Dyson is making the 10,000 ventilators in Wiltshire.

    3. Neil (@neilosjames)
      27th March 2020, 23:40

      Don’t care if Dyson makes them on the moon as long as they work… and I’m sure the government will throw contracts at anyone who shows a sign of being able to do the job.

  3. Sure a lot of talk about it but where is the action?

  4. It’s old technology though, so it should be easy for F1 teams to replicate this technology, probably to a much higher standard than is actually required. It’s great to see people and companies around the world coming together like this to help us all and in these troubling times.

  5. They could try their hand at some sort of isolating equipment.

    I’m wondering its cheaper to give everyone a supply of tyvek suits and mandate that they be worn outdoors? Ans reduce visits to friends and family. $8 for one. Mass sales might be cheaper.

  6. What worries me is someone makes lots of ventilators and then suddenly finds the product can’t be used in hospitals because of some bureaucratic mix up.

  7. This has been talked about for over a week now. Has any team actually started to build one yet? Gtech made one in a week using parts from B&Q and Dyson have a massive order in place

    1. There’s a lot of vapourware is being discussed in the UK. From Dyson who has a cardboard cutout, but hasn’t got a factory in the UK to a little company in Wales that claims it is making a newly invented cheap ventilator. They all need to be tested and none have from what’s being said in the media.

      Meanwhile, Elon Musk has bought a lot from Chinese manufacturers to be sent to New York in the coming days.

      1. Jon Bee the problem, though, is that Musk’s actions might make things better for New York, but does nothing to solve the global issues with ventilator production.

        Right now, the problem is that a lot of companies can’t supply enough ventilators to meet international demand. It means there now seems to be a growing market of middlemen who are buying up ventilators and then going on to sell them at inflated prices – which has been exacerbated by the US throwing large sums of money at suppliers of ventilators, offering up to four times the normal price (offering around $96,000 for ventilators normally costing $27,000).

        In that case, figures like Musk – who are simply buying ventilators from others – are not solving the production problem: in reality, what he and others have done is to dump the problem onto poorer nations that cannot afford to pay the premium prices that richer nations can pay to buy those limited stocks of ventilators.

  8. I think the main benefits of F1 teams getting involved is their ability to design and build quality equipment from scratch in a very short time. Something the corporations have never had because of their corporate/committee style of decision making.

  9. does the williams babypod really need to be made from carbon fibre? its going in an ambulance i dont think saving that few grams is worth all the extra cost?? its not like theyre going baby-racing

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