background image

Case study: Ventilator Challenge UK

How McLaren answered the nation's call in the fight against covid-19

Read time: 21.7 minutes

•   Joint effort across McLaren Group accelerates ventilator production from 50 a week to 200 a day
•   McLaren helps deliver 13,437 ventilators to double stock available to the NHS
•   More than 100,000 individual components manufactured by McLaren in just 10 weeks
•   McLaren collaborates with partners and suppliers to procure 50% of parts for Penlon ventilator
•   President’s Special Award for Pandemic Service awarded to McLaren by the RAEng

With car production and racing suspended amid the covid-19 pandemic, McLaren answered the UK Government’s urgent call for industry to save lives by playing a pivotal role in the production of more than 13,000 medical ventilators to treat covid-19 patients. As part of the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium – a group of major industrial, technology and engineering businesses from across the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors – McLaren Group deployed its capabilities in design, rapid prototyping, electronics, production and high-value manufacturing, via a joint effort from McLaren Racing, McLaren Automotive and McLaren Applied, to scale up production of desperately needed ventilator equipment in record time.

The global outbreak of covid-19 in 2020 wasted no time leaving an indelible mark on the world and people’s way of life. This novel, highly contagious and potentially life-threatening disease suddenly put the United Kingdom in a race against time to tackle an invisible and indiscriminate enemy. In the most severe cases, covid-19 attacks the lungs causing acute respiratory distress. And ventilators were quickly identified as an essential tool in the fight against the virus. By maintaining a patient’s respiratory function and helping them to breathe, access to this medical equipment represented the difference between life and death for thousands.

The problem? This life-saving piece of equipment was in short supply across the globe, including the UK where the NHS had just over 10,000 ventilators available – some way short of the 20,000 it required.

A critical national need

Faced with a significant shortfall in ventilator numbers and a low production rate of the equipment, the UK Government made an urgent call on 19 March 2020 for industry to help save lives by delivering Rapidly Manufactured Ventilator Systems (RVMS) to deal with an anticipated escalation in covid-19 patients.

McLaren immediately rose to the challenge. We joined forces with a collective of UK-based Formula 1 teams, engine manufacturers and their respective technology arms, as well as other industry giants – as part of the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium – to investigate and assess production of a range of ventilator design options that met the high-level specification for a RMVS. And, ultimately, manufacture and deliver the much-needed respiratory equipment to help the UK battle the pandemic.

Just 11 days after its call to arms, the UK Government made a formal request to the consortium for an initial order of 10,000 ventilator units. But the massive shortage of ventilators and the need for so many in such a short timeframe was just the tip of the iceberg.

Balancing speed with safety

Designing and manufacturing a ventilator, much like a Formula 1 racer or an exquisite supercar, is in no way a simple or quick process. The critical pieces of medical equipment are extremely sensitive machines that feature specialised hardware and software operating within a highly complex and intricate design. If one of the components does not work correctly, the whole machine can shut down and potentially put the patient at risk. It was therefore vital that we balanced the twin imperatives of speed of delivery with absolute adherence to the regulatory standards required to ensure patient safety.

To achieve the latter, any medical instrument must meet rigorous regulatory standards and strict clinical needs, and this takes time – a luxury we did not have as we sought to rapidly manufacture the much-needed respiratory equipment. It soon became clear that focusing on manufacturing components for ventilators based on existing designs, which already had the necessary regulatory certifications, presented the quickest route to increasing output.

Therefore, the consortium’s strategy was to accelerate the production of two agreed ventilator designs, based on existing technologies, to avoid the usual lengthy regulatory approval period – normally between 177 and 245 days – needed to obtain the necessary approvals from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for an entirely new design.

The first was a device based on a design by Penlon, the Penlon ESO2, and the other was an existing ventilator produced by Smiths, the paraPAC plus. While the latter already met the RMVS specification, the former had to be adjusted to meet the government’s tighter specifications.

“We oversaw engineering and issues management, and accelerated Penlon’s engineering understanding to help it identify the optimum design to meet the requirements,” explains McLaren Director of Innovation Mark Mathieson.

“This included creating a one-dimensional simulation model of the air path through the device to gain a better understanding of exactly how the device operated and how we could tune it. We also undertook a full design, failure mode and effect analysis across the air paths to establish the critical features of the device and ensure they were robust enough.”


In this instance, our partner Dell Technologies’ cutting-edge IT hardware and software solutions – the digital lifeblood of our day-to-day operations – allowed us to harness powerful data-driven insight that fuelled the rapid prototyping and testing we carried out in support of Penlon. Furthermore, Dell Technologies provided essential IT equipment to Penlon, such as digital displays and CAD-spec laptops for design engineers.

After just three weeks of stringent testing and clinical trials, the Penlon ESO2 was granted approval by the MHRA – making it the first newly adapted ventilator design to be given regulatory authorisation as part of the UK Government’s fight against covid-19. Furthermore, the Penlon device was awarded the CE mark – a certification that indicates conformity with health, safety and environmental protection standards for products sold within the European Economic Area.

“The CE mark was a major achievement for a number of reasons,” adds Mathieson. “Firstly, prior to receiving this certification, the Penlon device was only suitable for emergency use in the NHS and would typically have a life of about six months. With a CE mark, the device now had long-term approval which went far beyond MHRA approval.

“Secondly, it would usually take a year to receive this certification but, with our help, Penlon achieved it in just under a month. What’s more, because the original device was intended to be an anaesthesia device but we had adjusted it to meet the RMVS requirement, this was the first time a CE mark had been awarded to a device not for its original intended use.”

Sourcing for success

With the green light to build thousands of ventilators, the race was on to produce the quantity required. But before production could even get underway there was another potential roadblock. Such was the demand for ventilators, there was a very real risk of struggling to procure the specialised materials and parts required to manufacture components in the first place.

To mitigate the risk, we deployed planning, project management, purchasing and logistics teams from McLaren Racing, and worked with 117 suppliers to better source much-needed components. We procured approximately 50% of the parts required to help ramp up production of the Penlon device, handling the most complex and challenging aspects of logistics and the supply chain for both the Penlon and Smiths programmes.


Furthermore, we called upon our technology design and procurement partner Arrow Electronics – a world-leader in electronics distribution and architect of technology solutions. Arrow used its extensive component sourcing capability to support the rapid ramp up of device manufacturing and carefully managed the electronics supply chain to provide Penlon with the best electronic components. By drawing on its extensive relationships across the electronics industry, it swiftly sourced critical parts and, in instances where parts were hard to find, identified alternative products that were available in the supply chain to meet the accelerated production volumes.

“Managing the supply chain was the toughest part of the project,” says Mathieson. “To put it simply, if we couldn’t get the parts, then we couldn’t make the ventilators.

“Our suppliers really stepped up to the plate and played a huge part in the success of this project. They quickly adapted to what we needed – machining, moulding and fabricating parts on a much greater scale than we typically ask of them. We went from placing orders for five or six components to ordering thousands.

“In the space of four weeks, having begun the project from a standing start, we had 10 million new parts in the central stores hub. And all this was from a completely new supply chain – with most of us having never even seen a ventilator before.

“Not once did we have to stop the production line due insufficient parts or materials. When you consider that at the start of the project there was a real risk of this happening, this was a phenomenal achievement.”

High-quality production on a whole new scale

When it came to production, we coordinated input from other UK-based Formula 1 teams, as well as many of our own suppliers, with the McLaren Racing machine shop manufacturing more than 100,000 parts and ultimately producing 200 Penlon ventilators a day – four times the typical weekly output of Penlon and Smiths combined.

It’s a volume that McLaren Racing Production Director Piers Thynne admits was at odds with what the team was accustomed to: “One thing that cannot be ignored on a programme of this size is the sheer volume of high-quality components that needed to be produced. It was a significant challenge that could not have been more different to the small-batch rapid prototyping we normally do for Formula 1, where we sometimes only make a handful of components.

“We had design input on about 10 drawings to clarify designs and increase yield on parts. And, in some instances, we found we were working with mould tools that had long since seen better days. That’s when our design expertise really came to the fore, to create a brand-new mould tool which expedited manufacture and improved part quality.

“We also sought to increase speed in the production process wherever possible, without compromising quality or safety. For example, we worked closely with our cutter supplier to reduce the time taken to machine parts – tuning machine performance through an optimum combination of spindle speed and cutter technology. Depending on the part, it amounted to a reduction in production time between five and 10 seconds, which added up to a significant time saving when you consider we were making thousands of each part.”

Working apart, but remaining together

What makes this seismic leap in production even more remarkable is that it was done while adhering to strict social distancing guidelines and applying the best possible principles to reduce the risk of viral transmission on the production line.

The health and wellbeing of staff was paramount throughout the project and it was maintained, in part, with the help of our technical partner Unilever – which also led the build of a production management system and deployed its digital engineering team to develop a suite of training material for frontline assembly operatives across the consortium. The FMCG giant provided personal protective equipment, including gloves, masks, surface cleaner, hygiene products and essential food that could be used by those working on the production line at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, and at other companies within the consortium that had facilities manufacturing parts and ventilators. Meanwhile, another of our partners, Hilton Hotels, kept several hotels open to provide various people deployed at manufacturing sites around the country a place to stay.


“Our aim was to generate maximum output with as few staff as possible, to keep our people safe and socially distant,” adds Thynne.

“A team of 38 people – approximately two-thirds the size of a normal shift level – were split across three shifts: day, night and weekend. They worked tirelessly to enable 28 CNC machines to run almost 24-hours a day, seven days a week, for 10 weeks.

“Because we ran every milling machine we could to make ventilator parts but only operated with a skeleton-crew of people, we needed to establish a clear way – which didn’t contravene social distancing guidelines – of notifying team members that a milling machine had finished and could be used again to make another part.

“Some of our machine operators came up with the idea to make whistles that attached to the air blast on each machine, which would then blow for a couple of seconds once each component was complete. It was a simple but effective way to prevent machines sitting idle and a perfect example of the kind of ingenious thinking that McLaren is renowned for.”

The cross-Group effort

McLaren Racing’s contribution didn’t stop at supply chain management and production of the ventilators. By working hand in hand with McLaren Automotive it was possible to harness cross-company engineering expertise in lightweight and user-friendly design to develop and build bespoke trolleys on which ventilators could be fixed to for use in clinical settings.

“Trolley build was a learning experience for all those involved,” admits Thynne. “Despite being a simple product, it’s a medical-grade device and is therefore subject to a stringent high-quality inspection process.

“A total of 35 staff worked two separate shifts between 06:00 and 22:30 every day, including weekends, to build 8,000 trolleys in the space of 10 weeks. And as the project progressed, the team went from producing 30 units a day in week one, to 240 units a day by the time project concluded.”


Along with its fundamental role in trolley design and build, McLaren Automotive leveraged its engineering expertise to reverse-engineer, design, procure and produce ‘end of line’ test equipment to ensure that Smiths ventilator units met all specified functional and safety requirements.

“The Smiths device has a very complex production process,” reveals Mathieson. “It’s incredibly rigorous and employs the use of 18 different scientific test boxes to validate all the different components inside that device. The level of detail and intricacy would have scared most people away, but the McLaren Automotive engineers didn’t bat an eyelid when faced with the task.”

Meanwhile, exceptionally skilled engineers from McLaren Applied were deployed to reverse engineer several critical electronics boards for use in the Smiths test boxes, and to support the specification of suitable replacement parts where original equipment was no longer available.

A truly astonishing feat

By leveraging capabilities across the Group, with McLaren Racing, McLaren Automotive and McLaren Applied each playing a different role in the production process, McLaren was pivotal in enabling the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium to build as many ventilators as the UK Government and clinicians required, as quickly and as safely as possible. Ultimately, the consortium doubled the stock available through the delivery of 13,437 ventilators. It ensured the NHS always had access to the number of devices it needed and, in the long term, the resilient stock level safeguards against any future outbreak.

The consortium moved at incredible pace to make a difference and save lives, in a fantastic example of how UK engineering and technology companies, large and small, can come together to answer a critical national need. Without the extensive collaboration across the McLaren Group and the wider consortium, scaling production of such intricate and highly sought-after pieces of medical equipment in record time to combat covid-19 would not have been possible. And it’s an achievement that has been recognised by the Royal Academy of Engineering, which announced McLaren – as part of the VentilatorChallengeUK consortium – a winner of the President’s Special Award for Pandemic Service.

It typically takes around three years to develop and launch a ventilator. This was achieved in three weeks with the Penlon ESO2. Furthermore, the combined capacity of Penlon and Smiths would ordinarily produce around 50 ventilators a week but, with our support, it was possible to super-scale production to deliver almost 1,500 units a week – the McLaren Racing machine shop alone, manufactured a total of 113,506 individual components.

“Not a single McLaren-manufactured part reached the production line with a deviation from the design or specification,” reveals Thynne. “A truly astonishing feat given the complexity and number of parts manufactured.” And, even more astonishingly, all this was done in the space of 10 weeks.

Unquestionably, this was far from a straightforward challenge, but finding elegant solutions to complex problems in the pursuit of better is nothing new at McLaren. And this is only made possible through the capabilities, resource, talent and fierce determination of our people, partners and suppliers.

“Make no mistake, from the men and women who worked at the McLaren Technology Centre to those who managed tasks from home, this project required a huge effort across the Group in testing and unprecedented circumstances,” concludes Thynne. “It’s an effort I’m immensely proud of and it’s testament to the teamwork, energy, resolve, ingenuity and, most of all, bravery of everyone at McLaren.”

Join the team

McLaren Plus is our free-to-join fan loyalty programme, bringing McLaren fans closer to the team with the most inclusive, rewarding and open-to-all fan programmes in F1 & esports.

Sign up now, or current members can amend their details in the form below if necessary.