Rolls-Royce: Behind the scenes of the ventilator challenge

  • May 19, 2020

In Bristol, UK, huge hangars topped with solar panels buzz with activity. Inside, Rolls-Royce engineers are working on the latest in low-carbon technology, from lightweight engine fan blades to hybrid-electric generators and propulsion for next-generation fighter jets. And now, in a hangar normally used to train engineers, more than 100 people are diligently working to produce medical ventilators.

While it’s been an incredible challenge to begin producing ventilators, our people are used to solving complex problems and thinking differently.

More than 300 of our people stepped up to join the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium, which brings together companies who are working to scale up production of ventilators. For some, it was because of a personal connection to the cause, others knew they had specialist skills, and many just wanted to help in any way they could.

The team is working around the clock, applying problem solving skills and collaborating with colleagues in the consortium to assemble the incredibly intricate machines.

Here, we go behind the scenes to find out what it takes to be part of the team.

Building a ventilator production line from scratch

Boxes of parts arrive at the site daily, procured from more than 100 suppliers around the world. Rolls-Royce supply chain experts have sourced millions of tiny parts to scale-up production of the Smiths Medical ParaPAC Plus™, a ventilator that has been used by the NHS for more than a decade. Those parts are delivered to new and existing production lines around the UK, at GKN Aerospace sites, as well as Rolls-Royce in Bristol.

Think of a production line, and you’re likely to conjure up images of fast-moving automated factories. But building a ventilator is intricate and incredibly detailed work. Our ventilator production space in Bristol is calm and quiet, with people working on stations at least two metres apart.

Space has been found in unlikely places; robots silently glide through a new facility producing fan blades for future jet engines, while alongside them, people receive and wash parts for ventilators before taking them to the production line.

“We need to keep delivering for our customers, so we’ve had to be creative in the way we use space. We’re producing new technology for jet engines while next door we’re building life-saving machines,” says Phil Walters, who is leading the team in Bristol.

Our people are highly experienced in creating and refining production lines, but the need for social-distancing added a new dimension to the challenge of building one from scratch. Phil’s usual role is to make sure we’re using space at our Defence sites in the best way so we can deliver for customers. The team used the same principles when creating the ventilator production line. “We have a blueprint for how we lay out our production facilities, which is our bible for our day jobs. While we couldn’t put it into place in the same way, we used the logic of this to build the ventilator production line. Usually we navigate power sources, overhead cranes and airflows, so social distancing was just an extra element we had to work around,” says Phil.

Digital training

Most of the people working on our production line usually assemble and repair jet engines. While building a ventilator is entirely different, they applied their experience in manufacturing, using their problem-solving skills to overcome obstacles. Teams are being trained using a combination of hands-on demonstration, augmented reality and video testing.

We’re already exploring the use of virtual and augmented reality in our training programmes, and the challenge has taught us valuable lessons. As we rely more heavily on digital tools, we’ll be using technology to train engineers on our products, from how to transport a Trent XWB engine to providing technical support to Business Aviation customers.

Relentless attention to detail

When speaking to those working on the challenge, detail is a word that comes up again and again. The process of building a ventilator is extremely intricate, with hundreds of small parts being assembled for each machine.

In our normal work providing power for airlines, armies and navies, safety is our number one priority. The standards on medical ventilators are also incredibly stringent, with parts being tested throughout the assembly process. Teams are acutely aware of the task at hand; while the project is being carried out at an incredible pace, the number one priority is to build machines to the highest standard.

Looking to the future

For those working on the challenge it’s been a huge change from their day-to-day work, but team members agree that the exposure to a different industry and the levels of collaboration have been a once-in-a-career opportunity. The consortium has squeezed a decade of progress into a matter of weeks, and we’ve learnt valuable lessons that we’ll take into future projects, particularly when working on new forms of technology.

“In many ways it reaffirms what we knew about the incredible talent we have working here, and in other ways the passion and drive of the people has just blown us away. They have been the incredible driving force behind the project and their dedication has been amazing,” says Nigel Pearce, Director, Digital Manufacturing.

Why I volunteered – Aaron Pritchard, Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul Fitter, Rolls-Royce Defence

On March 21st, my Grandad was admitted to hospital with suspected symptoms of COVID-19. This diagnosis was confirmed on the 22nd, and sadly on March 28th, he passed away.

The hardest part has been the isolation restrictions we have faced as a family. We were not able to come together during his time in hospital, we weren't able to be by his side when he was fighting for his life, nor have we been able to come together since his passing to comfort and grieve together as a family – something no family should have to experience.

When I received the phone call asking if I would like to be involved with our activity supporting the VentilatorChallenge UK here in Bristol, I instantly said yes. Everyone should be motivated to help with such a project, but to be able to use my painful experience as a driving force to make a difference is an incredible chance for me.

Working on the project so far it is clear to see that we are a very passionate, dedicated and driven team applying every piece of knowledge and energy that we have in order to make this a success. It is a privilege to be involved every single day knowing that with each step forward we get closer to our goal, reducing the death toll that this cruel disease is inflicting across the globe.

It was a very proud moment for me to start working for Rolls-Royce in March. But to be involved with something this critical and utilise my six years of manufacturing experience and knowledge is a privilege.

I believe that wherever my future engineering career takes me, I will never be involved in a project that changes so many lives for the good. It is an honour to be involved with this challenge and I’m extremely proud to be part of a company that is having such an impact on preventing thousands of families potentially having to go through what mine sadly has.