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AWA award winners use expertise to assist with COVID-19 response

Australian manufacturer Ampcontrol is one of two organisations selected to develop prototypes for life-saving ventilators amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with the firm showcasing an innovative and agile response to demand.

Along with the University of Sydney, Ampcontrol, which took out the 2020 Australian Water Association New South Wales (NSW) Water Infrastructure Project Innovation Award in partnership with Aurecon, was approached by the NSW government to design and develop the healthcare equipment in late March, in preparation for a potential increase in COVID-19 cases requiring intensive care. 

Ampcontrol CEO Rod Henderson said the firm’s engineers worked around the clock to adapt their expertise to facilitate the project. 

“We’ve been building complicated technical solutions for the resources, infrastructure and energy solutions sector for over 50 years,” he said.

"The project is an adaptation of what we usually do, which is move oxygen from one spot to the other.

“The only difference is now we have a patient on the end of our design, instead of a mechanical process at a customer's plant.

“We've applied our expertise and experience, with the help of clinicians and biomedical engineers, to create a working ventilator. A lot of engineering hours went into the development of the prototype initially. Our engineers worked day and night, every day of the week.” 

Ampcontrol engineers demonstrate the prototype at John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle, NSW. (Image: Ampcontrol) Ampcontrol engineers demonstrate the prototype at John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle, NSW. (Image: Ampcontrol)

In collaboration with local clinicians and two Hunter-based specialist electrical engineering companies, Safearth and NewieVentures, more than 20 engineers worked tirelessly to design and produce the ventilator prototype. 

“We were approached on 21 March. [The government] rang us and said: ‘Look, we've got a requirement to manufacture 600 ventilators in 28 days’,” Henderson said.

“We convened a quick Saturday afternoon meeting with our engineers and decided we could do it.

“We started off on a number of parallel paths of design and ultimately ended up with one, which we are now building 10 pilot units for.

“After 11 days, we had a prototype working on the bench and seven days later we had the full prototype working on a ventilator simulator at the John Hunter Hospital.”

Home-grown innovation 

Henderson said that while innovation is always part of the projects Ampcontrol does for its customers, being able to apply the company’s expertise in response to the COVID-19 emergency was very fulfilling. 

“I am immensely proud of our people; we've got such a phenomenal team at Ampcontrol. It’s great to be able to do something that's ultimately going to help the community in such a big way,” he said. 

A rendering of Ampcontrol's emergency ventilator. (Image: Ampcontrol)

Furthermore, Henderson said he was pleased to see such good utilisation of Australian expertise, development and delivery, and that he hoped the focus on funding Australian science and manufacturing would continue once the COVID-19 pandemic was over. 

“It's really pleasing to see the NSW Government supporting manufacturing and innovation in Australia,” he said. 

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the models developed will be on standby for manufacture in the case of a second wave of COVID-19 cases.

“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.

“If [the] models are confirmed to align with Therapeutic Goods Administration requirements, full production can commence if our hospitals require more ventilators.”

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said being able to rely on local design and manufacturing teams during the crisis had been extremely important. 

“To have local manufacturers who are able to supply much-needed equipment to support frontline health workers – in this case a consortium led by the University of Sydney and another by Newcastle-based Ampcontrol – is absolutely invaluable,” he said.  

In agreement with Hazzard, Minister for Jobs, Investment and Tourism Stuart Ayres said the universities and industry groups involved showcased an excellent response. 

“This ventilator program is a great example for others to follow,” he said.

“It shows how NSW manufacturers are adapting and upskilling to bolster the economy and employment.”

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