Featured image: Medtronic
At the end of March 2020, Tesla/SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, seeking to help in the production of ventilators, contacted the Medtronic team and within a few days, their cooperation began.
As COVID-19 cases flare up around the world, Medtronic is facing unprecedented demand for its ventilators, which can help play a critical role in treating patients with severe respiratory illness. SpaceX proposed to make the most important component of the state-of-the art Medtronic ventilator, the proportional solenoid (PSOL)—a highly complex piece of machinery that controls the flow of air and oxygen inside the device.
The PSOL valve controls the flow of air and oxygen inside the most advanced Medtronic ventilator
SpaceX converted part of its rocket manufacturing facility in Hawthorne, California, to produce the PSOL valves with help from a team of Medtronic employees. In just a few months of collaboration, the two companies have achieved what would otherwise have taken years. As a result, Medtronic will continue to expand its inventory of critical ventilator components.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” said Medtronic Engineer Matt Phillips, who manages a ventilator research and development team in Carlsbad, California. “The partnership came together so quickly, and everyone moved with a sense of urgency and purpose because we knew people’s lives were on the line.”
But building ventilators is complex and requires a skilled workforce, a rigorous regulatory scheme, and a strong global supply chain. The PSOL valve alone consists of more than 50 parts, including some components with tolerance for accuracy as thin as a strand of hair. Each of the company’s most advanced ventilators contains three PSOL valves.
Cross section of PSOL valve
The PSOL valve, alone, consists of more than 50 parts
“The Medtronic team in Galway was always up for the challenge,” said Pat Cunningham, a senior program manager in Galway. “We worked in partnership with SpaceX to make sure everyone had the resources and support they needed to get this project across the line.”
SpaceX was the perfect partner for the venture, explained Phillips. The company has a division that designs and manufactures valves for its rockets and, like Medtronic, has the technical minds needed to take on such a daunting engineering challenge.
“We had their best technicians. We had their best engineers,” he said. “Some of the people working on this project are the very people who just launched the first private commercial crew to the International Space Station. They brought the same kind of energy to this project that they brought to putting astronauts into space.”
SpaceX team members who partnered with Medtronic to produce critical valves
Medtronic first shared the PSOL valve blueprint with SpaceX in early May. But before SpaceX could start manufacturing the valves, the company had to remodel premises at one of its California factories. Where the components of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsules were once assembled, the team has built a production line.
“They literally turned a rocket production area into a ventilator valve manufacturing facility almost overnight,” Phillips said.
The valves made by SpaceX undergo rigorous testing procedures before being shipped to Galway for more tests. These tests ensure the valves meet all necessary safety requirements, giving SpaceX the green light to start producing them en masse.
“When it comes down to it, these ventilators are going to save lives,” Phillips said. “So every component has to be perfect. There is no room for error, which is why we put these valves through such an intensive testing protocol.”
The company will make approximately 9,000 valves for Medtronic ventilators over the next eight to ten weeks. That amount is roughly the same as their plant produced last year.
With increased production and the involvement of SpaceX and other companies, Medtronic expects to meet the demand for its ventilators in the coming months, as the pandemic coincides with flu season in many parts of the world.
“This project certainly changed the way I look at production, partnership, and innovation,” Phillips said. “I know that, with the right focus and the right energy, we can take what we learned from this project and apply it to other challenges that come our way.”
Awed by the progress made by @Medtronic and @SpaceX teams to manufacture critical ventilator valve components in a matter of months. Loved this article that details all of the moving parts that went into this awesome collaboration – bravo, teams! https://t.co/PTFd2j8sAU pic.twitter.com/o9pFAKesOk— Geoff Martha (@GeoffMartha) October 9, 2020
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About the Author
Eva Fox joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover breaking news as an automotive journalist. The main topics that she covers are clean energy and electric vehicles. As a journalist, Eva is specialized in Tesla and topics related to the work and development of the company.