How engineering is helping to battle COVID-19

2nd April 2020
Alex Lynn

The engineering industry is being encouraged to gear up and innovate as it tackles COVID-19. But what has already been done, and what can your company do to help? Here, Kelly Friel, Digital Product Manager from Zoro, has discussed the answers to these questions.

From its origins in Wuhan, China to the UK, the novel coronavirus is causing disruption and applying pressure to healthcare systems across the world. With our NHS under extreme strain at the moment, it's important that we're doing all we can to help flatten the curve and significantly decrease the number of cases we are seeing.

Many businesses have temporarily shut or are working with a skeleton staff to limit the spread of the virus. But, for those in engineering, you might find yourself with an increased workload, because engineers have certain facilities and skills that could help our National Health Service tackle COVID-19. Here, I will be discussing what admirable actions engineering companies have already taken, and what you can do to help make a difference.

Three things that engineering companies can do to help fight COVID-19

Engineering companies are gearing up to help tackle the pandemic, and while we have seen all kinds of creative solutions to key problems, here are just three:

Design and manufacture respiratory equipment

The symptoms of the novel coronavirus have created a unique and urgent demand for many crucial pieces of healthcare equipment. For one, the need for respiratory ventilators is rapidly increasing as more and more hospitals find themselves without the resources to cope with a huge number of COVID-19 cases.

In fact, these lifesaving pieces of equipment are so essential right now that the government has issued a plea for companies who can supply ventilators or ventilator components to offer their services.

Provide personal protective equipment (PPE)

We are all feeling the immense pressure to take care when venturing out of the house and to only do so when necessary. But the doctors and nurses who are working on the frontline can't stay home, so it's absolutely crucial that they have the right personal PPE to keep them safe from the virus while assisting those suffering from the symptoms of COVID-19.

This has created an immediate demand for medical equipment, including N95 fluid-resistant face masks, disposable gloves, and surgical gowns and aprons that can help to limit the spread between doctors and coronavirus patients. In fact, these are considered so crucial in protecting healthcare professionals from contracting the virus themselves that GPs are beginning to call for the same protective measures to be brought into place rather than PPE just being offered to hospital staff.

Build temporary hospitals or donate materials

We seem to be following Wuhan's pattern of infection and the lifespan of the coronavirus, so it's expected that we will very shortly reach a peak where temporary hospitals are going to have to be built to cope with the rising number of cases. And, while NHS Nightingale has already been built in London to cope with the demand for care, there are still other things we can be doing to maximise the number of people getting access to treatment.

For example, donating any empty shipping containers to the healthcare system can mean there are many more temporary intensive care units (ICUs) for patients in life-threatening states to be treated. Along with this, being able to offer any other helpful materials and manpower to help make these will be appreciated.

How engineering companies are already helping

With an increased demand for everything from temporary hospitals to PPE and lifesaving medical equipment, many engineering companies have already started to lend a hand to help provide these critical supplies. For example, Dyson and Airbus have been given the green light to begin creating up to 30,000 ventilators to help the NHS fight COVID-19 as part of The Ventilator Challenge UK consortium's plan.

There have now been multi-million-pound orders of the ventilators from the government who are wholeheartedly backing the prototypes. However, it's clear that these two companies cannot make the necessary number of ventilators on their own, and therefore will need to work alongside other members of the consortium.

Overseas, efforts have certainly ramped up, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) teaming up with an Italian design company to create pre-fabricated ICUs made from shipping containers to deal with the rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 cases.

These have been designed so that they can be joined together to create mobile field hospitals, and are supposedly very easy to arrange while having the same properties of containing infection as hospitals do. And, this can be easily replicated in the UK if we have enough donations from companies with empty shipping containers.

The printing industry is also providing a lot of help in equipping the NHS to fight this virus, with 3D printing company Stratasys producing 5,000 disposable face masks for hospitals in the US.

If you're able to offer similar services within the UK, take a leaf out of Stratasys' book and be sure to publish the full production and assembly plan somewhere public. As well as encouraging others in your position to do the same, it could also mean businesses that are able to help with any stage of your production process will be able to get in touch and volunteer their resources or assistance.

Similarly, if your manufacturing or cleaning company is temporarily closing down, donating any critical PPE supplies to healthcare professionals can ensure both the mental and physical health of these workers is supported while tackling the coronavirus.

How to ensure your workers are protected during COVID-19

While you'll be busy innovating and working as quickly as possible to bring out resources that will help our healthcare system to respond quickly to COVID-19, it's important that you're protecting your own employees from the virus.

For one, any non-essential work should be ceased and any workers that don't need to be in to help with the production of critical supplies should be sent home. In general, the government guidelines are advising people to stay at home for a three-week period, and this is particularly crucial if workers are experiencing any of the symptoms of COVID-19, no matter how mild.

But, for those who are still in work, it's important they are following health and safety guidelines to limit the spread of infection through asymptomatic individuals.

You can do this by imposing rules that ensure employees are always kept two metres apart , and wear gloves and facemasks if they are working among others. As COVID-19 is believed to be primarily transmitted by touching surfaces contaminated with the virus and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth, it's important you and your staff are covering these areas of skin. You will also need to provide plenty of hand washing facilities, including hand sanitising stations where sinks and soap aren't available.

For full details of guidance and support for both employees and employers working during this time, please read and implement the government's advice.

We are all being faced with a unique business challenge in one way or another but, when you work in engineering, you might be able to use your resources and skills to help tackle this pandemic. Whether you find inspiration from what other firms are doing, or you feel encouraged to help in another way, our healthcare system is sure to appreciate any assistance you can give.

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