From cars to Covid: SA companies repurposed for ventilators

Twist of fate sees car manufacturers creating clean air

21 August 2020 - 07:00
The second tunnel at the SAVE-P manufacturing plant in Rosslyn, Pretoria. Workers on the manufacturing line work in stringent conditions designed to ensure the safety of the CPAP machines.
The second tunnel at the SAVE-P manufacturing plant in Rosslyn, Pretoria. Workers on the manufacturing line work in stringent conditions designed to ensure the safety of the CPAP machines.
Image: Alex Patrick

Car manufacturers making breathing devices. The thought may be ironic, but during Covid-19 anything is possible.

And so it's a twist of fate that with passenger vehicles being one of the biggest contributors of air pollution, the manufacturers of their parts have repurposed factories to produce ventilators instead. 

Roleplayers in the local automotive manufacturing sector believe the new venture is a natural progression of their industry because the automotive and the medical manufacturing processes are similar. And, they say, their factories are low on orders but have the manpower and mechanical capacity to make the life-saving equipment.

The result is an SA-made non-invasive ventilator or CPAP (Constant Positive Airway Pressure) machine costing far less than the imported counterparts. 

Called the CPAP 100, the new device is also user friendly, requires little maintenance and minimal training for non-ICU qualified nurses.

The SA Ventilator Emergency Project [SAVE-P], was created on March 10 to help bolster SA's much needed ventilator supply. 

Project leader Justin Corbett said the venture worked because the automotive manufacturing sector was similar to the medical manufacturing sector as both require stringent checks and balances.

"It was a natural progression for us. In March we realised there was a serious problem with our medical capacity. We heard there were only around 3,500 ventilators in the country and at the time scientists predicted we would need around 40,000 for the predicted infection rate.

"We saw the challenge as a massive opportunity. We have the machines capable of building the parts. We consulted with engineers scientists and doctors and came up with a plan - and it all came came together in a weekend."

The SA Ventilator Emergency Project [SAVE-P] headquarters in Pretoria.
The SA Ventilator Emergency Project [SAVE-P] headquarters in Pretoria.
Image: Zama Lethuli

The NPO consists of Corbett from Rand York Castings; director and medical consultant Dr Greg Ash; director and admitted attorney Rueben Olifant; executive committee member Markus Thill of Bosh SA; Claudio Maccaferri, Louwrens Fourie and Cobus Viljoen from MCR Manufacturing; Graham Ellet and Charl du Toit from Reef Engineering; project manager Elizabeth Wolmarans; Simone Rudolph-Shortt of Isohealth SA; Lionel Mccawl of Dowclay Products; Willie Conradie of Executive Engineering; and Andre van de Wetering of Afrit.

Next week SAVE-P will begin assembling the first tranche of the 2,000 ventilators they've  been commissioned to make by the Solidarity Fund. The first 500 will be ready by the end of the week, with 100 ventilators created a day thereafter.

The fund will be giving the ventilators to the national department of health, which in turn will distribute the machines to hospitals around the country. 

"Our ventilators are built like an old-fashioned Swiss watch - they are robust, easy to function and mechanical rather than electrical. They are also much cheaper to manufacture," said Corbett.

He explained that when SA received 1,000 ventilators from the US in May, the value of those machines was around R875m.

"A ventilator usually costs between R30,000 to R50,000. We are able to produce 2,000 units with just short of R40m given to us by Solidarity [Fund]."

"I never thought I'd be making ventilators'

Maccaferri's factory in Rosslyn, Pretoria, is home to the main CPAP assembly line. MCR Manufacturing had just extended their factory by another building when Covid hit.

The family-owned business usually creates parts for cars and trains, but with much of their work being suspended they had the time, capacity and the ability to create the parts needed for the ventilators. And the new building was the perfect space to create a separate assembly line for SAVE-P.

"We were down 75% in our orders and we probably would have looked at retrenchments unless we repurposed the factory. We are still making our usual parts but we have enough equipment to create extra parts. The decrease in work opened up the capacity for the labour and the machinery needed," said Maccaferri.

The SAVE-P CPAP 100 manufacturing plant in Pretoria.
The SAVE-P CPAP 100 manufacturing plant in Pretoria.
Image: Alex Patrick

He said although business had picked up, the factory was still only working at 60% capacity. 

"The process was labour-intensive. It took me two weeks to create the parts needed. In normal circumstances it would take around two years for a manufacturer to get the go-ahead from [SA Health Products Regulatory Authority] to begin production, but it's taken us six months and the approval process was stringent."

SAVE-P made many changes before the project was finally approved, he said.

"I never thought I'd be making ventilators but we just had the right machines to work with," he said.

Four plastic tunnels housing assembly lines were created within the new MCR factory. The tunnels ensure that dust and other potentially harmful particles do not settle on any of the parts.

Ellet, from Reef Engineering, said the project had created almost 300 jobs between the factories involved, "but what's really great is that we were able to save jobs during the process".

He said at least 100 jobs per factory were saved, with 35 people directly involved in the CPAP production.

Workers at the SAVE-P ventilator assembly line in Pretoria.
Workers at the SAVE-P ventilator assembly line in Pretoria.
Image: Alex Patrick

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the portfolio committee on trade and industry heard that SA was unlikely to experience a shortage of ventilators should the country experience a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

This was due to the fact that the country has started manufacturing ventilators locally since the start of the outbreak.

The department of trade, industry and competition said around 2,000 ventilators had already been produced and the production of more ventilators was continuing through funding from the Solidarity Fund.

Furthermore, the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) of SA had approved 12 applications to the value of R476m in terms of the corporation’s essential supplies intervention programme.

Companies receiving support from the programme added capacity for face masks, hand sanitisers, gloves, packaging for medicines, disinfectants and testing kits. 

According to a press release by the portfolio committee, as a result of IDC funding:

  • the manufacturing capacity of N95 masks had increased by a million masks per month;
  • surgical mask manufacturing capacity had increased by 16 million masks per month; and
  • hand sanitiser/disinfectant manufacturing capacity had increased by 2 million litres per month.