A TEAM of Hunter engineers and health professionals led by Ampcontrol has won a state government contract to build emergency ventilators that may be sent to the coronavirus frontline overseas.
Ampcontrol chief executive officer Rod Henderson received a phone in March a contact in NSW from the government to canvas whether the Newcastle-based, national manufacturing company could develop an emergency ventilator prototype for clinical testing, to be rapidly scaled if necessary.
"The government brought five parties to the table and they were clear only two would make it to the manufacturing stage," he said.
"On Saturday March 21 I received the phone call and they asked if we could manufacture a ventilator prototype that could be rapidly scaled to 600 [units] if needed. We took a deep breath and went, 'Yep, we'll give it a crack.'"
Within hours, his team had begun Project Anemoi, a Greek reference to the four wind gods. It included 20 Ampcontrol engineers, biomedical and clinical specialists from Hunter New England Local Health District at the John Hunter Hospital, the University of Newcastle's Faculty of Engineering and Newcastle engineering firms, Safearth and NewieVentures, among other NSW Health specialists.
Working around the clock as the coronavirus toll was escalating, the Hunter team had its first working prototype within 11 days, with some design work done at The Melt in Warners Bay. Seven days later, it took the prototype to JHH's simulation unit to test.
"We have worked very closely with the John Hunter heath team who have guided us with clinical and biomedical technical advice, to make sure we are on track, and with the University's Faculty of Engineering, which is big on partnering with manufacturing," Mr Henderson said.
Mr Henderson said Ampcontrol would now proceed with the initial NSW Government contract to build 10 ventilator units at its technical facility at Cameron Park. He said some of the machines would likely be used at JHH and there was speculation others may be sent to assist efforts to help COVID-19 patients in developing nations.
Mr Henderson said the prototype is designed to meet the COVID-19 emergency and Therapeutic Goods Administration requirements, however the result was "far closer" to a commercially available ventilator.
"It was the first time that [Ampcontrol] tried to build medical equipment. The support we got and how the product came out was certainly exemplary," he said.
"We could stem a whole new industry out of this if we - and I mean the Hunter - takes the opportunity.Rod Henderson
Ampcontrol would know in coming weeks more specifics about the government contract, however he said the ventilator production would remain in the Hunter.
"We will keep all the jobs in the Hunter Valley and we envisage if we go into full manufacturing mode there will be a need for extra labour," he said.
Mr Henderson said the Government was backing "our home-grown manufacturing and engineering": "We could stem a whole new industry out of this if we - and I mean the Hunter - takes the opportunity. It is wonderful for our manufacturers to be a part of the recovery process."
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said pre-production of the ventilators was expected to take six weeks and if a shelf-ready model complied with the regulatory requirements, full production could begin.
"We know with the easing of restrictions there could be a rise in COVID-19 infections and if a second wave hits, we want our hospitals to have all the equipment they need," she said.
Health Minister Brad Hazzard said the government was acting to combat global shortages of vital medical equipment to ensure NSW had the back-up it needed.
"We need ventilators - they can mean the difference between life and death," he said.
Professor Brett Ninness, Pro Vice Chancellor Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment at the UoN, said the ventilator contract win was "another example of the power of the University of Newcastle, local business and government partners coming together to demonstrate leadership on important issues in our region and beyond."
Ampcontrol's team and a second team from the University of Sydney won the two government contracts however there were other Hunter players involved.
HunterNet member and manufacturer Newcastle Machine Shop and Central Coast-based Technotia Laboratories and EPES Consulting worked in the initial taskforce: "In the early stages we were all knowledge-sharing for the greater good ... as the curve was rising exponentially and the death rate rising globally," said Newcastle Machine Shpp general manager Tim Hardy.
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