The business is the latest to step up and tackle the potential crippling shortage of ventilators South Africa will face if cases of COVID-19 increase rapidly.
These crucial machines mechanically inflate a person’s lungs when their own body is unable to do so.
Owner and director Ian Ambler said their ventilator had been developed specifically for the African market. Simple and robust, it could be used by people with very few medical qualifications and had a battery backup in case of power failures.
“It could be carried in an ambulance and to patients, and later plugged into the mains,” he added. “Technically it was a huge success and we were very proud of it”.
Clifford Machines & Technology stopped making the machines in 2003, after facing the prospect of having to pay bribes to get their units sold to state hospitals. “It was a tragedy because the unit worked extremely well and we had some wonderful testimonies from paramedics, nurses and anaesthetists,” Ambler said.
“The good news is this was stopped because of the corruption issue and not because of technical or suitability issues. We believe it is a fantastic unit and absolutely suited to the realities of Africa with the COVID-19 crisis.”
So, when the company, which employs 50 people including 25 engineers, heard Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize say that SA may soon be in need of ventilators, they decided to get their machine out of mothballs.
It was originally designed with the help of Dr Don Miller, a renowned anaesthetist who worked at Tygerburg Hospital.
“Our medical consultant, Dr Miller, gave us the input and technical specifications on the features that he, in his expert opinion, believes are required for COVID-19 patients.” Said Ambler
“Richard Sobey, the engineering guru on the original project, then identified the best and most appropriate parts of our range to ensure that we met this specification.
Of course we have also had to look at some of the electronic control systems in our old unit as some of the technology has become obsolete or is simply not appropriate to scale manufacturing.
“So while all the mechanical components essentially remain the same we are employing the latest available electronic control hardware to ensure reliability as well as to ensure ease of maintenance of the unit with easily available parts.”
Ambler said the project would not have happened without a range of people helping, including Nigel Ward, executive vice president of Toyota SA, who has helped solve customs and transport delays and offered his company’s expertise in process design and optimisation; and Dave Bullock, of Rapid 3D, who has produced 3D printed parts.
The company has also had the support of the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC); Melanie Veness, CEO of the Pietermaritzburg and Midlands Chamber of Business ; and Mediclinic Pietermaritzburg’s Craig Hampson and his colleagues, who have been offering technical assistance and components for testing.
The prototype will be tested at Mediclinic under the supervision of qualified clinicians and specialist anaesthetist at the end of April, after which Clifford Machines & Technology hope to get the go-ahead to begin production.
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