VentilatorChallengeUK: The strategies behind the success

Dick Elsy discusses the leadership strategies behind the incredible success of VentilatorChallengeUK and the positive future that lies ahead for British manufacturing.

Many of you will be familiar with Dick Elsy from his role as Chief Executive of the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult – a group of research centres across the UK, which provide companies with access to world-class facilities and expertise to prove-out and scale-up high value manufacturing technologies.

Since March, however, Dick has been leading VentilatorChallengeUK – a consortium of industrial, technology and engineering businesses from across the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors working in concert to produce medical ventilators.

With formal orders from the government for thousands of units to meet the UK need, members of the consortium are now accelerating production of two agreed designs (by Smiths Group and Penlon), based on existing technologies, that can be manufactured from materials and parts in current production.

Jonny Williamson spoke with Dick Elsy about what methods have enabled consortium members to move at a pace that prior to this crisis would have been considered impossible.

Dick also comments on the crossover of learnings from mass producing ventilators to mass producing vaccines, the important supporting role government plays, and the positive future that lies ahead for British manufacturing.

An abridged version of this interview has been published as a podcast.

Click the image below if you’d prefer to listen to Dicks’ insights:

The time taken to turn around production lines, coordinate new suppliers and supply chains, reconfigure equipment and re-tool was incredibly accelerated. How exactly did you and the team manage it?

Dick Elsy, HVM Catapult
Dick Elsy, Chief Executive, High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult.

Dick Elsy: We are a bunch of engineers who have been following their instincts and processes and some very senior people who have basically reverted back to their fundamental, complex programme management skills to get this whole thing set up.

At the heart of it all is complex engineering programme management, and us deploying skill sets that we’ve used throughout our lives; once an engineer always an engineer. It’s been amazing how skills have just all naturally come to the fore.

We’ve done nothing, in process terms, fundamentally novel. We’ve all grabbed a hold of our own new product introduction methods, and it’s quite interesting between aerospace and automotive, different three letter acronyms but fundamentally it’s the same process. We’ve been deploying those best tools that we’ve all been used to in the disciplines; but the way we’ve accelerated it is to parallel process activities.

With procurement, for instance, we’ve had to put in place parallel supply chains to source ventilator parts. To coordinate that activity, we’ve had just a lot of very competent people working in parallel to get through the sheer quantity of procurement activity and the level of rigour and detail that needs to be applied.

A lot of it, though, has been through self-organising teams, there’s not been what I’d describe as very strong command and control. Clearly there’s been an overarching programme, but we’ve put teams of smart people in place and empowered them to get on with the job.

We haven’t been prescriptive about how things have been done, we’ve allowed people to get on and do what’s necessary. That’s been a key part of it, that profound sense of empowerment without meddling and interfering.


Final testing of a new ParaPAC Plus ventilator. Image: VentilatorChallengeUK

Final testing of a new ParaPAC Plus ventilator.


It sounds like you adopted, crudely speaking, a ‘learn and progress by doing’ approach, rather than planning every detail.

Well, we didn’t busk it; but nor did we spend three weeks putting a plan together because we didn’t have the time. We just very quickly latched on to things. For instance, the first ventilator that we took a serious look at was a Smiths Industries device, which is made in relatively small volumes in Luton.

The first thing, other than establish good relationships with the Smiths team and form a team around them, was to get hold of the bill of material, look at what we’re up against and then fire that out to the larger team to take a really detailed look and tell us what it would take to scale up to the number of ventilators needed.

We just started parallel processing; we got the supply chain team working on the bill of material, we had another team looking at how the Smiths’ factory is put together, what is the manufacturing process, what are the test requirements, what are the engineering issues related to scaling that up in new supply chains.

We started farming this whole information gathering piece out to start with, and then began drawing it back together using some high-level tools to manage the overall programme to visualise all the data and see what we were up against.

We understood that even with triple-shifting we would max out the Smiths facility, so we had to look at developing parallel, multi-shift workforces. What capacity does that provide? Right, that’s still not enough; so, then we progressed the concept of building parallel factories and how the optimal layout could be achieved.

If you’re going to put a facility together in a very short space of time, it had better be right first time. So, that’s when, in order to compress time, we used tools such as digital twinning. A really great example of that happened at the Airbus facility in Broughton, where one of our HVM Catapults, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre Wales (AMRC Cymru), was empty because it was just about to receive a whole host of kit to do the assembly work for ‘Wing of Tomorrow’, which is a big research programme with Airbus.

So, a nice empty space, and we said right, let’s commandeer that for a few weeks to use as one of our factories. A team from Siemens Healthineers used a fantastic digital twin to map the whole factory layout in an incredibly short space of time, mere days. That then gave us the confidence to order all the equipment and put it together.

The whole process was done in less than 30 days, from deciding to build a facility and creating a digital twin to building it out and having everything up and running. Just fantastic.

Digital twins were also used to particularly good effect with the other ventilator manufactured by Penlon, a small company based in Oxfordshire that manufactures anaesthesia equipment at a rate of, traditionally, around 10 a week.

This ventilator is a combination of existing equipment and subsystems from an anaesthesia device, it didn’t actually exist as a physical ventilator. Being a new device, it required approval from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). That’s normally a nine-month process which we achieved in 21 days with the help of some really smart people from Penlon.


AMRC Cymru producing life-saving ventilators - image 3

Backed by £20m from the Welsh Government, AMRC Cymru is the first High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult location opened in Wales.


Once operational, I’ve read that there were circa 500 people on-site at Broughton – 352 shop floor workers across two shifts, plus dozens of office, logistics, security and cleaning staff. What key learnings can you share from the way Broughton safely managed that level of footfall?

As far as training is concerned, for instance, the obvious thing would be to swamp both Smiths and Penlon with observers to understand the manufacturing processes and learn from those involved. However, the virus meant we couldn’t have dozens, let alone hundreds, of people in close proximity.

We very quickly decided to deploy remote learning tools. The HVM Catapult has done of lot of work with augmented and virtual reality through devices like Microsoft HoloLens. We’ve conducted a large amount of practical research using HoloLens over the past couple of years, particularly around training people remotely. The Catapult has around 100 HoloLens devices, that makes us capable of training hundreds of people.

In terms of the production facilities, we took the opportunity to lay these new sites out in a very safe, robust way in terms of social distancing. Taking Broughton as just one example, there are unidirectional walkways which means employees can’t cross over each other; every workstation and space is segregated by the necessary distance; there are protocols in place so people can interact without getting too close to each other; even the canteen is laid out like an exam room with every employee designated their own individually numbered table, their food is delivered in numbered containers and everything is separated.

How are you codifying this transferable knowledge, not just what you’ve done, but how you’ve done it, and sharing it with manufacturers outside of the consortium?

To be frank, we’re only just starting that because we’ve had our heads down getting on with the job at hand. But we realise that there are many learning points from what we’ve done and that these learning points could be quite powerful in helping industry get back on its feet.

There is also a vision of using this thinking to go beyond simply returning manufacturing to where it was prior to Covid-19. We want to go beyond that and start meaningfully addressing the next wave of challenges, such as the route to zero carbon and sustainable manufacturing.

If we can get behind some big programmes there, backed by government funding and support, I think it can act as a real energiser and keep the torch lit for innovation at a really difficult time.


On May 18, the 1,000th ventilator subassembly left Ford’s Dagenham Plant for final assembly by Consortium partners and delivery on to the NHS.

On May 18, the 1,000th ventilator subassembly left Ford’s Dagenham Plant for final assembly by Consortium partners and delivery on to the NHS.


Are there any learnings from the mass production of ventilators that could help expedite the mass production of a potential vaccine?

Interestingly, within the HVM Catapult, our Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) is a key part of the vaccine challenge. The main centre for scaling up the manufacturing of one of the vaccines is going to be the National Biologics Manufacturing Centre in Darlington, which is part of CPI.

In terms of crossover, I’d say – empowerment; a single focus mission as a major enabler for collaboration; teamwork; commitment. The pace with which we’ve moved has largely come down to human factors. People with a selfless commitment to a challenge, and in this particular case a national challenge involving life and death.

That’s been quite a grave responsibility, but it’s engendered an incredible team spirit of collaboration and led to a completely ego-free, ‘get on and do’ approach. There’s been a high degree of trust between us all, no second guessing of decisions, because we get the most qualified and best person to make the decision and we stick with it.

We’ve empowered people to get on and do the right thing. Largely, that’s what people want to do, and often we put barriers in the way of people doing the right thing. We’ve lifted those simply because we’ve had to.

What have been your personal high and low in recent weeks?

The first wagon loaded with 40 or 50 ventilators leaving the Penlon facility was very uplifting. Visiting and seeing Broughton, talking to the fitters and technicians, people who had been, up until very recently, putting wings together and are now manufacturing ventilators. To see that same spirit of collaboration that we have in the central core team extend right out to the edges of the enterprise, pulling all of us together.

Downsides? There’s one which was both a low point that became a high point. Ventilators are quite complex machines, and we deliberately chose two existing production devices to scale up because we thought that was the quickest way to meet government’s requirement.

Inside the devices are electronic chipsets, one of which is a legacy part and out of production. That’s not an issue when building 10 units a week, but when you want to manufacture 1,500, you stress the supply chain and we quickly exhausted all global stocks. It dawned on us that having a new chip made was going to take weeks.

However, in the spirit of the enterprise, McLaren stepped up. McLaren has access to fantastic global supply chains in electronics. Their ability to leverage those relationships meant that within hours, and I’m not kidding, we had got hold of the data for the chip, we got a licence and a fabrication facility lined up and the Cabinet Office gave us the funding to book that fab time.

The general public probably wouldn’t comprehend, but that’s an extraordinary feat. Making a chip from scratch to a known specification would normally take months, and it was done in days.


Three new production sites have been built to support Smiths Group scale up delivery of its ParaPAC Plus ventilator, two at GKN Aerospace’s facilities at Luton (pictured) and at Cowes, and Rolls-Royce at Filton.

Three new production sites have been built to support Smiths Group scale up delivery of its ParaPAC Plus ventilator, two at GKN Aerospace’s facilities at Luton (pictured) and at Cowes, and Rolls-Royce at Filton.


How will what the industry is going through change the way businesses assess and prioritise their supply chains?

I think it’s made us all realise that we’re operating in this global space and we’ve let quite a lot of sovereign capability disappear from the UK. When you actually you need it for yourself and others, you realise how very dependent we’ve become on this deeply interconnected world.

There are some strong messages here for us to have greater homegrown manufacturing. If we are genuinely heading towards the commitment to zero carbon by 2050, that means that we need to be manufacturing in a sustainable way. It doesn’t mean that we cheat by sending manufacturing somewhere else which isn’t zero carbon.

There’s a huge opportunity for the UK to use its fantastic science base and proven technological know-how in manufacturing to do a lot more and bring production back to Britain in an entirely responsible way. To create new value streams, new employment opportunities, new added value, new innovations, new revenues that can be taxed to help rebuild everything.

The response from industry has reacquainted society with the vital role designers, engineers and makers play in our society. How do we ensure that this is kept at the forefront of ministers’ minds when they’re formulating policy and initiatives, and the public, particularly those thinking about their career choices?

There’s always been engineering recognition, there has been throughout my career, and I’m proud to say I’ve never subscribed to the ‘engineering recognition victim support group’ because I’ve always believed that you should just get on and do the job and demonstrate what’s possible.

I’m going to be completely selfish here, we’ve grabbed the opportunity of doing something amazing with industry, this incredible piece of industrialisation and mobilisation of talent to do something really important.

It’s a great story, and we’re now absolutely determined to tell it. To keep it at the forefront of people’s minds and remind politicians as they begin to worry about the next big thing of just how important this was.

The Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband has described manufacturing as a “strategic sector” where there is “a strong case for government to intervene”, and as “a national and economic security issue… it needs protecting for our future prosperity.” What do you think government could, and maybe should, be doing over and above what they are currently?

Clearly, they’re doing a lot to stop important businesses going under and I think we all welcome the very rapid response that government made to underpin the furloughing process.

Miliband’s right in that manufacturing is the lifeblood of the economy. A crisis such as this does expose the weakness of being an entirely service-based economy. That, ultimately, you have to create value and wealth from digging  stuff out the ground, growing something or making something with a product of the first two; that’s the only way of genuinely adding true value and you need true value to underpin an economy.

The sort of thing that government can do is help with big stimulus projects, like I’ve described. To help industry to not only climb out of the difficult spot it’s in to business as usual, but accelerate it, provide the support and means to deliver zero carbon sustainable manufacturing.

If you step back, zero carbon is every bit as much a crisis as Covid-19. Let’s make a start on that big programme and make use of the spirit we’ve engendered with the VentilatorChallenge.

As the past few weeks have proven, engineers, designers and makers are absolutely critical to solving the world’s challenges. This has been a golden moment, a finest hour, that we should try our hardest not to lose.


A batch of finished ventilators prior to delivery into the NHS. Image: VentilatorChallengeUK

A batch of finished ventilators prior to delivery into the NHS.


And in your conversations with ministers, do you get the sense that there really is that support and willingness to develop the sector for the long term, not just for this immediate crisis?

I do, yes, particularly with BEIS and the Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi. He’s got a real determination to support industry going forward. I’m starting to engage with him now around how do we use this learning to push into the next challenge.

In telling the VentilatorChallenge story, are you hoping to see a step change in the adoption of industrial digital technologies?

That’s one of the key learnings. The consortium has deployed augmented and virtual reality for training; rapidly deployed new ERP systems and new inspection processes for parts; used cloud to share information; used Microsoft Teams to communicate.

We’ve got a core team, many of whom have never actually physically met, and by using digital tools we’ve been able to create a multimillion-pound ventilator manufacturing business, all off our laptops.

It’s amazing how quickly we’ve all adapted to them. Where some companies may be finding reasons to kick the can down the road, we’ve been forced into using them to maintain our pace.

My message would be; don’t be afraid of these tools, get stuck in, start using them and you’ll begin to realise how powerful they are.

Having announced and then deferred your planned retirement to lead VentilatorChallengeUK, what does your immediate and long-term future look like?

I put it on hold because I jumped straight into the Ventilator Challenge, which has been all consuming for the past few weeks and actually continues to consume my time for the right reasons.

My original stepping back in August doesn’t seem like a particularly smart thing to do, it would just seem wrong to not plough my experience, particularly that gained in the past few months running the VentilatorChallenge, back into industry, help it get back on its feet and progress towards a zero carbon sustainable future.

I want to get the principles of that established and then once that’s running, I might start thinking about doing something different. I think I’ll always end up making a contribution in this space anyway, it’s just too interesting not to.


*All images courtesy of VentilatorChallengeUK