Tuesday 31 March 2020 4:11 pm

Engineering is essential to addressing the coronavirus crisis

Dr Hayaatun Sillem is chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

At first it seemed – at least in commentary – that dealing with the Covid-19 crisis was mainly a task for epidemiology, medical and public health experts, and they continue to lead the global effort to combat the outbreak. 

But the cross-sector scale of the challenge became apparent last week with the UK government’s appeal to the engineering community for help in manufacturing an extra 12,000 ventilators in a matter of weeks. Aided by industry bodies such as Make UK, factories that usually manufacture products ranging from Formula 1 cars to aircraft engine fans wasted no time in offering their support. 

This is just the most visible example of a much broader mobilisation that is taking place among the UK’s engineers to help address the challenges posed by the pandemic. The Royal Academy of Engineering is playing its part by asking its Fellows and partners to use their expertise and networks to identify solutions and approaches that could assist the public health response. 

The response has been fantastic, with hundreds of offers of help materialising within the first few days, from world-leading researchers on health monitoring to manufacturers of PPE.

The offers reflect the myriad ways in which engineers can make a difference to the Covid-19 response, and crucially, the pace at which they are willing to move. The rapid conversion of the ExCel Centre into NHS Nightingale, a field hospital with 4,000 beds, is an engineering challenge as much as a medical one. Meanwhile, a 3D printing company came to the rescue of an Italian hospital to produce replacement respirator valves within 24 hours. 

Another impressive feature has been the burgeoning of powerful new collaborations. A consortium of over 20 companies, led by Airbus and supported by the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, is poised to make 10,000 ventilators in the next few weeks. Engineers from University College London have come together with clinical teams and Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains to produce a breathing aid, just approved for use in the NHS, to help keep Covid-19 patients out of intensive care. And there are also growing numbers of collaborations across the tech community, such as the Coronavirus Tech Handbook, an open source platform that enables the tech world to share ideas and collaborate.

There are further opportunities to deploy engineering to support the Covid-19 response, for example expanding the use of remote diagnostic and monitoring tools so that patients can be assessed in their homes, and greater use of robotics to reduce the risk of disease exposure by healthcare professionals and other key workers. Innovation will also be important to ensure we have accurate and affordable tests and, in due course, vaccines, available at scale wherever they are needed.

While innovative technology is important, greater application of basic engineering and design principles could also be beneficial. The shocking pictures of healthcare workers with facial scarring from PPE is a reminder of the limitations of the current designs. Simple engineering and human-centric design principles could reduce the risk of transmission in hospitals, buildings and transport, through alternatives to hand operated doors or lift buttons for example. Engineering principles are relevant too to efforts to improve the resilience of our supply chains and network infrastructure and to bolster their capacity to respond to massive changes in demand.

Engineers are used to working within multi-disciplinary teams to discharge their duties, and it is more important than ever that we reach beyond professional silos. The impacts of Covid-19 are multi-dimensional and far-reaching: developing an effective, sustainable response to this extraordinary situation can only be achieved by a truly collaborative effort. 

Our engineering community has answered this call to action and will play its full part in tackling this global grand challenge.

For more information on the Royal Academy of Engineering’s response to Covid-19, click here.

Main image credit: Getty

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