Medtronic talks Elon Musk and SpaceX’s role in the fight against COVID-19

Elon Musk announced on Twitter earlier this year that SpaceX would partner with the medical device company Medtronic to help the company manufacture the most innovative ventilators, which are crucial in the fight against the pandemic. Since then, information about the relationship of the two firms have been very limited, with Musk simply mentioning that SpaceX was making valves for Medtronic.

Medtronic decided to share some key insights about its work with Elon Musk and his private space enterprise in a recent post. The medical device maker’s story highlighted the value of Musk’s Silicon Valley-style approach to his companies, which emphasizes quick innovation that’s directed towards the development of real-world, practical solutions in the shortest time possible.

The Puritan Bennett 980 Ventilator Series from Medtronic is the most advanced ventilator in the industry. It helps patients breathe naturally through a variety of revolutionary technologies for oxygen delivery. It is also equipped with a unique feature of ventilator assistance that allows the machine even in the event of some device failures to continue providing ventilatory support. The flagship computer is assembled at the Medtronic facility in Galway, Ireland, and in many hospitals it has become a staple.

Medtronic’s Galway plant could manufacture some 7,500 valves for its flagship ventilator in a typical year. But with COVID-19 spreading across the globe, there was a rapid and significant rise in the need for ventilators. Medtronic quickly increased its ventilator demand, and the Galway plant had boosted its output 40 percent by mid-March. But it hasn’t been enough. After all, building ventilators is a complicated process and the devices need specialized components that are hard to produce.

A proportional solenoid (PSOL) valve, a highly complex piece of machinery that regulates the air and oxygen flow within the system, is one of these components. The PSOL valve consists of over 50 components, each of which must be produced with surgical precision and some components have tolerances that are as thin as a hair strand. Three of these PSOL valves per unit were used by Medtronic’s most advanced ventilator, and, as Medtronic Engineer Matt Phillips noted, the medical device firm was pretty much at a loss about how it could meet the increasing demand for its products.

And then Elon Musk called, and he came up with a unique and interesting proposal.

Musk’s private space corporation, SpaceX, which made its mark with its reusable rockets and its Crew Dragon spacecraft in the industry, offered to make valves for Medtronic PSOL. As it already had a division that designs and produces valves for its rockets, SpaceX proved to be the right partner for the medical device manufacturer. The engineers of the private space corporation were top-notch, and they had the technological skills to stand up to the challenge. And with that, the relationship of the two businesses started.

SpaceX did not waste any time in a showcase of its quick, Silicon Valley-style approach to problem-solving. COVID-19 was not letting go, and neither was the private space company of Elon Musk. With the aid of Medtronic workers, SpaceX promptly converted part of its rocket factory in Hawthorne, California, to manufacture PSOL valves. The team also designed a PSOL valve manufacturing line on carts to improve mobility and speed. Ultimately, what would otherwise have taken years, the SpaceX and Medtronic team accomplished in months.

“They literally turned a rocket production area into a ventilator valve manufacturing facility almost overnight,” Phillips said.

SpaceX didn’t scrimp on its talent, as the Medtronics engineer noted, with some of the engineers who worked on the Crew Dragon capsule working on the Medtronic project. Quality control was exceptionally good, with the valves manufactured before being delivered to Galway at the SpaceX site undergoing stringent testing.

“We had their best technicians. We had their best engineers. 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,” Phillips noted.

“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 Medtronic engineer added.

The medical equipment manufacturer now has the capacity to manufacture 9,000 PSOL valves for the Medtronic flagship ventilator over the next 8 to 10 weeks, due in no small part to the fast initiative of the SpaceX team. That’s about the same number of valves produced in 2019 by Medtronic’s Galway facility. For its part, the Galway facility can now operate at five times the volume of its pre-pandemic operations.

“I have never seen anything like this in my life… This project certainly changed the way I look at production, partnership, and innovation. 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,” Phillips remarked.

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