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The federal government has launched an accelerated procurement plan with several Canadian companies, including Montreal-based CAE, to procure up to 30,000 ventilators.
“Canadian companies are answering the call to protect our health care professionals with made-in-Canada solutions,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a statement on Apr. 7. “This is exactly the kind of innovative, collaborative thinking we need to respond to this rapidly evolving pandemic.”
CAE is best known in the aerospace sector for aircraft simulators and training services, helping train over 150,000 pilots per year worldwide. But for more than a decade, the company has also made a name as a healthcare training solutions provider for colleges, universities and hospitals and for medical equipment manufacturers. That includes patient simulators that respond to treatment, including intubation and ventilation.
“We have the [medical] and engineering expertise in house – electrical, mechanical, software and human physiology,” said Erick Fortin, director of engineering at CAE Healthcare.
A team of 12 engineers took up a challenge issued on Mar. 21 by the Montreal General Hospital Foundation and McGill University Health Centre to develop a simple and low-cost ventilator. Within 10 days, they had a working prototype built with parts from around the lab.
“It worked quite well,” said Fortin. “It showed how you can put a team together with the right experts … and what we can do.”
For a company that on Apr. 6 announced the temporary laying off of 2,600 of its 10,500 employees and reduced work weeks for another 900, the opportunity “to do something” has been rewarding. “The whole company is mobilized,” he said. “We are really prepared to produce and we are productizing.”
From that initial team of a dozen engineers, the project now has about 100 employees involved. And CAE expects to pull in more as they move to full production.
CAE might not be the only company in the Montreal aerospace cluster seeking to solve the ventilator shortage. According to industry think tank Aero Montreal, Pratt & Whitney Canada is also exploring how to use its engineering and manufacturing capabilities to design and validate a ventilator concept that would likely “pull on local manufacturing,” including from Bombardier and AON3D.
Fortin said CAE had received “hundreds and hundreds” of emails from companies interested in supplying components, from valves to flow sensors. Though all options are under consideration, including having several contingency plans at the ready, the priority would be to find Canadian suppliers who can deliver high volume.
“Some parts are a bit more complex to source, like valves. We’ll look at all offers, at all suppliers that can help,” he said. “We are confident that we have everything we need. We certainly have the expertise in house to do the production of thousands of ventilators.”
CAE must still fine-tune the prototypes, but it intends to deliver about 10,000 units within three months once it starts production.
A low-cost solution might have been part of the engineering team’s initial objective, but Fortin admitted the final price might be higher than a typical commercial ventilator. “We try to build it as low as possible,” he said. “As you can imagine, as time is of the essence, cost will be a bit higher that what it could be with a bit more time.”
CAE will also be leaning on its training expertise to ensure the final product comes with a complete operator training package. Since mid-March, in fact, the company has been offering online re-skilling courses for ventilators and has released a number of COVID-19 scenarios on its current products such as patient simulators. Fortin noted that more than 2,000 health professionals had participated in coronavirus-related webinars
“After 25 years at CAE, I am always surprised at how nimble a big company like this can be, and how we can adjust to different situations,” he said.
In its statement on Apr. 7, the government said that about 5,000 Canadian companies have offered expertise and capacity to develop and produce medical personal protective equipment, hand sanitizers and other protective gear. The government is also “working through over 22,000 submissions to Public Services and Procurement Canada from companies interested or able to sell to Canada. All efforts are being made to secure contracts and deliveries as quickly as possible.”
“In mobilizing industry and creating partnerships, we are moving swiftly to build up a secure domestic supply of key personal protective equipment to protect Canada’s frontline health workers as they fight this pandemic,” said Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry.