When mining and infrastructure company Ampcontrol pivoted the business to create emergency ventilators for hospitals, it brought broader innovation benefits. Here's how the company did it.
Just 18 days after getting a call to help the country prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic, Port Stephens engineering company Ampcontrol had a prototype ventilator up and running at Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital. CEO and managing director Rod Henderson MAICD says 10 pilot units are now undergoing further clinical assessment and testing with NSW Health and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). “We have shown we have the capability and facilities to rapidly build emergency ventilators in Australia if the need arises,” he says.
The company was asked to produce 600 machines. It can manufacture 30 machines per week, providing them at a cost comparable to those already sourced from China and the US. “What enables the pivot is that we have a very good team of R&D and design engineers,” says Henderson.
Ampcontrol, which usually works in the mining, infrastructure or energy markets, has been recruited into the NSW government’s efforts to produce equipment to help deal with COVID-19. Chair Greg Sedgwick FAICD says the call to build the ventilator prototype came in the initial stages of the pandemic — and that shareholders and the board were “more than happy” to divert resources away from existing development programs.
“There was a civic responsibility to do so,” he says. “All reports so far indicate that our product is world-class. We have the manufacturing expertise and resources to fill Australian demand with a reasonable level of investment. We would have to do more work to understand whether this is an international opportunity. One thing I’m certain of is that our development and production teams would be up for it.”
Red tape relief
Ampcontrol had some government assistance to cut through red tape, which excised six to nine months from the usual timeline of approvals. “There’s been a massive slicing of bureaucracy,” says Henderson. “Access to the clinicians, the biomedical engineers and the clinical governance group has been sensational. They are the people who use this equipment day in and day out, and understand what they want, which made the process so much easier. We were assigned a project director and a project manager — and those guys have just cut their way through the back office of government to make this thing happen very quickly indeed.”
The NSW government allocated $10m to encourage NSW businesses to urgently undertake pilot projects to produce ventilators and other critical medical equipment during the crisis. The federal government struck a separate $31m deal with industry to build 2000 ventilators. Victoria also placed an order for 2000 extra ventilators.
To design and build its prototype, Ampcontrol collaborated with two other Newcastle-based engineering companies — Safearth and NewieVentures — as well as its existing joint venture with the University of Newcastle. “They were able to support some of our best R&D guys without disrupting some of the other projects we were working on inside of Ampcontrol,” says Henderson.
As the project kicked off, 20 engineers worked on three different designs, which were all incorporated into the final prototype. The requirement under the TGA was that people should be able to be trained to use the ventilator in less than 20 minutes. “We’ve introduced some innovation into it, particularly around user friendliness,” he says. “We actually trained someone in three minutes.”
Gearing up to manufacture the machines will require investment and retooling, and the company would look to hire more skilled and semi-skilled workers. The project is expected to contribute seven to eight per cent of the annual revenue of Ampcontrol, which employs about 850 people in Australia.
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Even if NSW does not end up requiring the 600 ventilators, Ampcontrol will explore export opportunities, says Henderson. The company’s Melbourne unit has also made 3000 face shields for Hunter New England Health during the course of the pandemic.
Henderson says the business community’s response to COVID-19 should “open people’s eyes” about the capability and adaptability of Australian manufacturing. “I think the state, and the federal governments have recognised during the pandemic that they need to bring supply chains closer to home,” he says. “There is an incredibly talented pool of engineers and manufacturing in our country — and we need to capitalise on that. COVID-19 has shone a light back into Australia to say that we are not just a service economy. We need to make sure that critical systems, critical components — things that keep our economy ticking over and our people healthy — we have got to look to see how we can better secure that. Some of the best technology in the world comes out of Australia for mining applications. We need to recognise that we can be more than just people digging dirt out of the ground and then sending it to other countries.”
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