Mike Barlow doesn't believe in impossible. Not anymore.
Because this year, he watched the impossible become reality.
Until this spring, Penlon Ltd. wasn't in the emergency ventilator business. But at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when ventilators were desperately needed, Penlon found a way to make them. What seemed insurmountable, Barlow said, was possible because of support from partners like Kent Elastomer Products Inc., which made bellows — thousands of them — faster than anyone thought possible.
"We saved lives," Barlow, materials manager at Penlon, said of the collaboration among Penlon, KEP and others. "We will tell our grandchildren about this."
As COVID-19 spread across Europe and the number of hospitalizations climbed, the United Kingdom government issued the Ventilator Challenge U.K. to its manufacturing base, urging the development and production of much-needed medical equipment.
Barlow said Penlon was uniquely positioned to meet the challenge because of the work it already did. With some changes to the schematics, the anesthesia systems it regularly produces could be redesigned and used as critically needed ventilators.
Within a week, the company not only drew up plans for a new ventilator — the Penlon ESO 2 — by adapting one of its anesthesia systems, but also it created a prototype. And after a month, Penlon received certification from the proper governmental authorities and was poised to produce tens of thousands of ventilators.
The initial goal was to make about 30,000 machines in three months, and the project brought together suppliers as well as OEMs in the automotive and aerospace sectors. Ford U.K., McLaren Racing Ltd., Airbus SE and Siemens AG all joined the effort to ensure that the ventilator project had the manpower and manufacturing space for the ventilators to be built quickly and precisely.
"We were doing things in a matter of hours or minutes rather than in days or weeks," Barlow said. "It [seemed] impossible from the start, like it could not be done. That was the only way you could really think about it. But, in reality, it had to be done. The reason it did happen was that it was a common goal for everyone. We were facing a crisis and people were dying, and every device we were making could potentially save lives."