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Ventilator challenge could help to ease the skills gap

01 September, 2021

Last year, a collaborative project united industrial companies with UK university students to help solve some of the problems arising from the urgent need for ventilators. As Nikesh Mistry*, Gambica’s sector head for industrial automation, explains, the project also helped to equip engineering students with the skills needed to digitalise UK manufacturing and to help close the skills gap. 

Gambica takes great pride in the work its members do to champion UK manufacturing. As the pandemic hit last year, Gambica members Siemens and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) teamed up to tackle one of the key challenges faced in the UK – the lack of ventilators. Although there were more than 8,000 ventilators available, based on predictions, an estimated 18,000 would be needed within two months.

To address this, a large group of companies came together under the Ventilator UK Challenge, with Siemens being a key partner.

Demonstrating the power of teamwork, engineering and digital tools, the collaboration helped to design and build a factory from scratch and scale up production from 10 ventilators to 1,500 per week, within four weeks, compared to an industry norm of more than a year. The history-making effort met the brief, saved lives, and ensured that the NHS did not run out of ventilators.

MMU is trying to bridge the digital skills gap by focusing on Industry 4.0 and industrial digitalisation and is one of the founding university partners in the Connected Curriculum.

Connected Curriculum brings together Siemens, Festo and partner universities to collaborate to ensure that academia and industry are aligned and that students gain the skills and knowledge that industry is looking for in the new digital world. It bundles hardware and software with simulation environments, data, curriculum examples, case studies, and real-life problem-solving tutorials.

Similar to the situation that faced the Ventilator UK Challenge, universities also faced a challenge to shift to online learning and creating new content suitable for a digital environment that was still engaging.

A team of academics at Manchester Metropolitan University, led by Aris Alexoulis and Gary Dougil, worked with the Siemens Connected Curriculum team, engineers and apprentices to develop a challenge for students based on the Ventilator Challenge, that could be embedded into the curriculum. This is a great example of the dynamic culture within the University and the willingness to engage with industry and to move rapidly to implement new initiatives.

This was achieved in record time through close collaboration between the Siemens and MMU teams. The Department of Engineering has strong links with industry and has a particularly active industrial advisory board with collaboration activities on several fronts to help students develop skills for their future careers.

The challenge was embedded in the second-year engineering project unit where teams of students from different engineering disciplines address industry-led challenges.

Due to the pandemic, the University switched to a block delivery approach and units were delivered in six-week blocks.

The ventilator project was popular among students, with requests to join exceeding the allocated capacity. This was probably due to the exciting brief, but also the involvement of a prestigious industrial partner such as Siemens.

The students were asked to design a manufacturing process that could produce more than 10,000 ventilators within 12 weeks, using Medtronic’s open-source ventilator design, a budget of £50m and a choice of two assembly locations. Medtronic made its ventilator design available to anyone on-line during the pandemic so that ventilators could be produced to help save lives.

The students were also given access to Siemens Tecnomatix, a plant simulation software that they had not used before. They were offered training for Tecnomatix through Siemens’ Xcelerator Academy and support from the academic team at MMU and Siemens engineers and apprentices.

All of the groups succeeded in designing manufacturing processes that met the requirements of the brief. The students first had to calculate the process times using the Methods Time Movement – Universal Analysing System (MTM-UAS), which broke down operator instructions in Medtronic’s manufacturing documents into individual movements. Once the process times had been obtained, the takt time was calculated. Various shift patterns were considered in compliance with UK regulations.

Subsequently, an iterative simulation was carried out using Tecnomatix for the assembly process to meet the desired takt time, while also producing a realistic model. Examples of additional considerations were workstation design, plant location selection and layout, Covid-secure measures such as social distancing, and full product costing.

The groups of students worked together remotely. Most of them never met physically during the entire project. They developed new skills that are in high demand in industry, such as being able to create digital twins of shopfloor environments, and virtual commissioning.

This alliance is just one of many examples that demonstrate how, when called upon, UK industry can work together to overcome obstacles. Some of the students are now keen to pursue a career in manufacturing. These are our future leaders of industry and they will be the champions that drive the digitalisation of manufacturing.

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