Augmented Reality is playing a vital role in supporting VentilatorChallengeUK

Posted on 23 Apr 2020 by Jonny Williamson

The power of augmented reality (AR) is helping support the UK government’s call for more ventilators, thanks to one of the world’s leading providers of industrial innovation technology.

VentilatorChallengeUK is a consortium of significant industrial, technology and engineering businesses from across the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors, collaborating to produce medical ventilators for the UK.

Led by Dick Elsy, CEO of High Value Manufacturing Catapult, the consortium has received formal orders from the government for in excess of 15,000 units. The consortium is now working to accelerate production of two agreed designs, based on existing technologies, which can be assembled from materials and parts in current production.

The expert team has been working with existing ventilator manufacturers Smiths Group and Penlon to document crucial assembly processes involved in the development and build of Rapidly Manufactured Ventilator Systems (RMVS).

The consortium has used PTC’s Vuforia® Expert Capture AR technology and Microsoft’s HoloLens to capture the crucial assembly steps and processes involved in building an RMVS – a process that takes more than 24 hours.

This will be uploaded and edited to create a virtual assembly guide and relayed, through wearable equipment or smart devices, to the factories of consortium partners that traditionally don’t manufacture ventilators.

Protecting all the workers involved in the project is of paramount importance to the consortium and this is where AR is ideal for removing a lot of the dangers, by virtually placing a ventilator expert into a partner factory – reducing the risk of the virus spreading.

As a result of the technology, VentilatorChallengeUK has managed to create two new ventilation production lines in a matter of weeks, a feat that would typically take six months to do.

Paul Haimes, VP of Field Engineering at PTC, explained: “At the heart of the project was the need to transfer the expertise, skills and intellectual property of the assembly lines at Smiths and Penlon into a number of new facilities, something we have achieved through the power of augmented reality.”

The goal is to guide a manufacturer, with no prior experience of building a ventilator, successfully through the process. Paul continued: “All they have to do is put on a pair of HoloLens glasses, or view a smart device and follow the instructions. We have even put annotations over the footage to help with troubleshooting any potential issues.

“By using the power of augmented reality, we have reduced set-up lead times and developed a manufacturing approach that will help the consortium scale up from 50 to 60 ventilators combined capacity per week to producing at least 1,500 units of the Penlon and Smiths models every seven days.”

A 15-strong team of PTC specialists have been working on this project and, in order to avoid transmission of Covid-19, only one specialist is working on site with the rest of the support being delivered remotely and through cloud technology.

Another feature of the VentilatorChallengeUK has been a nationwide HoloLens glasses plea, with academic, manufacturing and technology specialists donating more than 250 pairs that are already playing an essential role in a rapidly growing production line.

Overcoming the challenges to successful execution

Speaking exclusively to The Manufacturer, Paul Haimes explained: 

“We had to find a way that we could quickly transfer the knowledge of a ventilator production line into a factory that would typically produce parts for cars, aeroplanes or F1 teams – all without taking the experts away from their day job.

“The scale of this project, both in terms of the complexity of the assembly process and the number of people who needed augmented reality experiences to ramp up the production numbers, was extraordinary and we had to find solutions in just a few weeks. This whole exercise would usually take a company somewhere between six months to a year to complete.

“We had to implement the process and technology from afar, with the majority of our team relying on cloud technology to communicate and execute the knowledge transfer. Just one PTC expert was on the ground throughout, with a ‘behind the scenes’ team working around the clock to ensure we met the demanding timeline of the VentilatorChallengeUK.

“We faced two specific challenges during this work. Firstly, the national availability of HoloLens (the battery packs needed recharging regularly so we needed to switch devices and ensure they were thoroughly cleaned each time) and, secondly, ensuring the assembly experiences were delivered for use on tablets and smartphones, which overcame a few issues with wearables and PPE equipment.”

*All images and videos courtesy of PTC – due to the confidential nature of the VentilatorChallengeUK project, the media shows augmented reality in action, but not actual footage of the ventilator build.