Iain Ambler was interviewed on BizNews Radio
Listen to the interview here: https://iono.fm/e/848068 or read the transcript below:
ALEC HOGG: During the Easter weekend. I had a conversation with Iain Ambler who is the co-owner of a company called Clifford Engineering [Machines & Technology] and it was a fascinating interview it went pretty viral many people were interested in it, not least because to get a respirator nowadays. It’s like in the business for South Africa press conference that I attended a couple of weeks ago, Stavros Nicolai, from Aspen said, it was like trying to hunt a Dodo they’re so rare. And with Iain’s Company, Clifford Engineering [Machines & Technology], they actually produced one which many of them are still in use, but they stopped producing them in 2003 because of corruption, of course with what’s happening now Iain’s dusting off the blueprints, he said he was prepared to give those blueprints to anybody else. They would like to start producing them again. I thought it’d be a good idea to bring him on to the show today and you guys [David Shapiro / GG Alcock] can also ping a few questions at him, just to find out how things have developed. Iain, I hope you can hear us now. Can you just bring us up-to-date with what the response has been to the interview that we had?
IAIN AMBLER: Sure. Alec response was remarkable. Actually, we’ve had an incredible amount of assistance and Good Will, you know, we’ve had assistance from companies like Rapid 3D who have printer 3D printed parts for us overnight and in incredibly short time frames, other companies who work around here, Cosmos Engineering who’ve made parts for us and refused to let us invoice for them, they have literally made them for nothing. It’s been an incredibly collaborative effort and it’s been very gratifying to see and kind of restores your faith in human nature to see this kind of thing. What was interesting, you know, our very biggest delay, believe it or not, ended up being the parts stuck in customs in Johannesburg at OR Thambo and we lost a whole week on that, believe it or not, which was a tragedy but it was impressive to see how people helped us we had ANC politicians rolling up their sleeves to help us, we had Nigel Ward (the vice president of Toyota South Africa) assisting us himself and he really got stuff out of customs for us in record time together with a company he uses for all their own clearing. So it’s been extremely humbling actually and gratifying to see how everyone has rolled up their sleeves to assist us and we have got our updated ventilator model running on Saturday afternoon and it’s working beautifully if the line is clear you may hear it breathing behind me in the background. But it is running very nicely and we are incredibly happy that it’s up and running. We thought it was going to be late. We could have been done a week earlier if it wasn’t for the custom delays. But the bottom line is that it is up and running, working, and doing what it is supposed to do. We are very pleased with it.
ALEC HOGG: Now the critical part about that is whether the machine will actually work on sick people. I did pose, again, at that press conference, I actually asked one of GG’s questions as one of your questions, and the question there was there was a lot of interest in the respirator but it was also made that it has to be technically correct. You can’t just put any bellows into someone’s lungs and expect that they will be able to be respirated. Just take us through, not the technicalities of it, but the development of it which makes you confident that this is a solution. Oh and we can hear it in the background by the way.
IAIN AMBLER: Ok, good. Look, Alec obviously it is a machine that is connected to a human being, you’ve got to use the best possible components. We don’t just use normal pneumatic values or pressure transducers or anything like that. We buy medical rated components so that they are completely clean. There is no pneumatic grease inside them or anything like that. The air has to be completely filtered and cleaned. The solenoid valves that we used you need to make sure that there is no possibility of a spark because oxygen is highly combustible and can explode pure oxygen. So we obviously take care of all of those details but, you know, if we hadn’t built these things before, Alec, and supplied them to hospitals and worked with various doctors and hospitals, anaesthetists, you know, we wouldn’t have a chance in doing this as quickly. But the fact of the matter is that we did this for many years so that gave us a big head start. We know what components to use, we know how to do the control, we have not changed the design, it is the same proven design – all we did was update the components in it particularly the electronic components so that they are present-day components that you can buy off the shelf.
ALEC HOGG: Last we spoke you were having problems actually getting through to the right people at the Department of Trade and Industry and the IDC. Any progress there?
IAN AMBLER: Alec, yes, the IDC has been very helpful and we appreciate that. There is a lot of people there are rolling up their sleeves and working extremely hard and I really do respect that. We had the CEO of the IDC call us personally and send us an email or two and a number of his staff assisting us so we appreciate that very much. The IDC and I’m talking unofficially here, it looks like they will move forward with a simpler design than ours – it’s basically what we call a CPAP ventilator (CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure) and without going into too much detail ours will do the same function but ours also has additional functions which enable it to be used as an ICU ventilator – an intensive care ventilator – so it will do the simple functions but will do a lot more. But, and this is where the big but comes in, it is not a complicated device. Most ICU ventilators are not simple to use – not at all. The one we developed 20 odd years ago was specifically developed to be a full ICU ventilator built for African conditions and made to be very simple to use. And it is really is very simple to use. So, it will cover the CPAP function at the absolute minimum but it will cover a lot more than that. Now, in my opinion, I understand why the IDC appears to be concentrating on a much simpler CPAP unit – it does reduce the complexity and I think they are trying to follow the 80/20 principle where they are covering the 80% or 70% need rather than the 100% need. But I do believe that there is a definite requirement for slightly more detailed ventilators, and I use the word “detailed” as opposed to “complicated”. Ours can be used not just as a constant pressure device (or CPAP device) but as an active breathing device that will actually assist the patient with each intake of breath and it will be automatically timed (it is automatically timed) to work with his breathing. In other words, his breathing triggers the assistance that the machine provides – it doesn’t just force him to take a certain number of breaths per minute which could actually do more harm than good in the COVID-19 patient.
ALEC HOGG: So what is next Iain? How many of the ventilators are you going to be able to produce for the country?
IAN AMBLER: Alec, you asked me that in our last interview and I said that it is a chicken and egg question and it really is. If we understand that there is an enormous demand we can’t possibly produce enough – at the moment we are not being asked to produce any directly for South Africa at all and in fact, most of the interest we’ve had an enormous interest, most of it has been from outside our borders (strangely enough). But how many we can produce really depends on how many we get orders for. We are a company that works with a large number of subcontractors that we’ve been using for many years (and suppliers) and we will continue to use those and we’ve discussed and we’ve been talking with many local companies who’ve contacted us to assist with making additional components where we can’t keep up with our own supply chain. We’ve had people, again, like Nigel Ward (the vice president of Toyota) phoning up and saying he’s completely ready to assist us in whatever we need to wrap this thing up and go into serious production volumes and Toyota understand that kind of thing better than we do and we would certainly take full advantage of a kind offer like that.
ALEC HOGG: Here we have people saying that respirators are rarer than dodo’s and you saying that you’d like to make them. Where’s the gap? Where’s the disconnect?
IAIN AMBLER: Alec the disconnect is that we haven’t had anyone yet, from the South African Government, or the Department of Trade and Industry or IDC or anyone like that saying: “guys we want you to make 500 of these or 5000 of these” or anything like that. That really is the disconnect. They are going through a process and we are waiting to hear what comes of it. We made the decision 3 weeks ago that we weren’t going to wait for any more response or comeback – we’ve still not heard nothing official so I’m glad we didn’t wait. We decided to go ahead and the last 3 weeks we’ve used that time to make our first working unit and it is working really nicely. But the bottom line we’ve done that off our own bat – we made that decision on our own and we got on with it on our own and we haven’t had any financial assistance thus far – which is a pity. But as I said last time we’re seeing this project, we’re engaged in, as a double-edged sword. There is the altruistic side of it – where obviously want to do the right thing for our country and our people and build ventilators – there is a desperate need for them. And the other side of it is from a more typical business decision – we need to keep our company moving and we need to be able to pay our employees so that they can put food on the table for their [families]. And we are chasing all available options right now. Would prefer to make them for South Africa rather than overseas? Yes, we would.
ALEC HOGG: If you got an order today from the states for 500 how long would it take you to produce them?
IAIN AMBLER: If we got an order today for 500 I think we could make them easily within a month if, and this is a big if, we need a hotline or a speed dial for someone in government or SARS or the IDC or whatever who can get us things through customs. We cannot sit waiting for things to clear in customs for weeks. Our most critical components where items that hit customs on Tuesday the week before last and we only got them out Tuesday last week after the Easter weekend. And I understand that it was particularly problematic during the lockdown and Easter weekend but those were the things that kill us and if we can have assistance with that kind of thing it will make an enormous difference in how fast we can make these things.
ALEC HOGG: David, We’ve seen that in many areas mountains have been moved by the government in this crisis – in this COVID 19 crisis. You would think that if respirators were such a desperately required piece of equipment, which they are looking all over the world to try source them, you’ve got a homegrown solution that can produce hundreds within months …
DAVID SHAPIRO: I hope that Iain is still listening cause I had a fascinating interview with Phillips this morning. Their results came out which were very good and they were talking about respirators and there is a lot of sophistication, I would assume they are on the top end because they were talking about the complications of the software which obviously monitors the way you’re breathing and so one – and the CEO was saying just how they are working 3 shifts a day 24 hours a day 7 days a week to get what he called precision diagnostic equipment through to the users. The question I want to ask Iain: what does a respirator cost that he is making what are we talking about in terms of cost? And also how do they compare to someone to like Phillips – and I’m not questioning the quality, just simply to try and gauge where we are in the global market.
IAIN AMBLER: The cost is a difficult one to answer because it depends on how much sophistication you want in the unit if you wanted a really simple CPAP only unit, that’s a big difference in price to the one ours will do that and it will also do all the ICU functionality, but my opinion is we should build these things all the same with all of that functionality, because our unit is particularly simple, in terms of pricing, we have not got that 100% battened down yet because we are still looking at the cost of some of the components and transport etc. etc. And also we have used slightly more expensive components in this thing, for example, the PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) is a Siemens unit, it’s made in Germany, it comes from Germany, but they are incredibly reliable, that’s what we have put our software into and there are cheaper ways of doing it, but that unit is completely reliable and completely proven, there are hundreds of them available off the shelf and you could argue that it’s an overkill for what it’s doing but under the current circumstances where delivery is critical, it’s a no-brainer to use an item like that. The cost of ours, compared with the Phillips ICU ventilator is enormously cheaper, in rough numbers, depending on the spec of the machine, it’s going to be somewhere around $8000 or something like that, but again, don’t quote me on that because these are estimates at this stage
ALEC HOGG: We can’t not quote you, because you are on our program
IAIN AMBLER: Well then you caught me, Alec
ALEC HOGG: GG from your perspective, do you have any thoughts for Iain?
GG ALCOCK: It sounds like a completely different world
ALEC HOGG: Think about Masinga
GG ALCOCK: Msinga Tugela Ferry Hospital in Msinga has the dubious distinction of being the centre of drug-resistant TB and has probably the highest number of cases of resistant TB, so, I think when Coronavirus arrives there, it’s going to be the one that’s got Chuck Norris imprinted on it. They are very likely going to need them more desperately than anything else, I think, my feeling is that to a large extent my frustration with government around the informal sector, among other things, is their ability to move is just so slow and hence the lack of orders, and I think this is the tragedy is that when you have got an epidemic like we have now, you need agility and speed of movement and in some ways drop a lot of the bureaucratic barriers and tragically this is not happening.
ALEC HOGG: It’s interesting that in certain areas it is happening, there are certain things that have been going through very rapidly, but in a case like this, as you have mentioned, not so easy. Iain, I guess you have got to start moving mountains yourself somehow.
IAIN AMBLER: Yes, and we are doing that Alec we are moving ahead as best we can and we have a number of other interested parties who we are talking to which is not quite the way we expected it to go, but obviously we are a business and have got to make business decisions for the best of ourselves and our employees and their families, but just to pick up on something GG Alcock said there. He mentioned small companies speed and agility, and Alec, I want to pick up on that, and I said the same thing in my interview with you two weeks ago, that I thought, in a way, the irony like a company like ours could get overlooked because we are small, but in a situation like this, we have shown that in three weeks we have built a working ventilator, we got the drawings done, it’s all modelled, a complete bill of materials and is physically running and operating, pumping mechanical lungs and tomorrow we will test it further with the doctors. In three weeks we have done that, and, in fact, we could have done it in two weeks, because we lost a full 7 days of the most critical components sitting in customs. And that’s where I think if you use a small agile company and you put them together with the might of the DTI’s and the IDC and those guys assist with the logistics like getting stuff through customs and assisting with buying power etc., you do the two together, it’s amazing what can be achieved. I’m not pretending that our business is particularly unique or a 1 in a million or anything like that. We were very fortunate in that we have made these things before, so let’s take advantage of that, they are proven, they are developed, it works, so let’s take advantage of that and get on with it, to me it makes perfect sense and as I said many times, we are completely happy to work as collaboratively as possible.
ALEC HOGG: Iain Ambler from the Pietermaritzburg company Clifford Engineering [Machines & Technology]. David, we have seen government changing things and making differences, it does appear it can move very rapidly when it needs to and yet somethings falling off the table here with respirators. Which Tugel Ferry, for instance, could do with half a dozen tomorrow.
DAVID SHAPIRO: Alec, the private sector in SA has always held its head up high. We’ve always come through when we needed to. I’ve got great respect for SA businessmen and their ability to be creative in difficult circumstances, whether it’s from the mining sector to the engineering, to doctors, to lawyers, you name it. What is the hold up now is government, and they’ve got to play the game as well and got to come to the party. Iain sounds a very impressive man and it’s obvious he runs a super business and if he can benefit from it, even if it’s not from a SA point of view, which is sad, maybe we have just opened up a whole new industry for SA business on the export side. We’ve got to get the right people in government to do the right kind of things and there’s got to be a department that recognises these issues. And it applies to the same argument we had with SAA Alec. It wasn’t the technical issues, technically we’ve been there and deliver the service, what did let us down was the government interference and incompetence in actually running the business.
ALEC HOGG: Iain’s company incidentally, exports 95% of the machines it makes, this is not respirators, they have just gone back into that, 95% of the machines it makes into the United States, into the most sophisticated first world country, so there is nothing wrong with their engineering, that probably puts that idea to rest.