Academy bestows engineering awards for transformative work during COVID-19 pandemic

RAE Ventilator Challenge award

The Royal Academy of Engineering has awarded the consortium which worked on fast development of ventilators to help the NHS deal with Covid-19 sufferers a President’s Special Awards for Pandemic Service for exceptional engineering achievements in tackling COVID-19 throughout the UK.

It is one of a total of 19 awards made to teams, organisations, individuals, collaborations and projects across all technical specialities, disciplines and career stages within the UK engineering community who have contributed to addressing the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specially commissioned silver medals will be presented to all 19 winners later this year.

RAE Award for Rapid Covid TestAnother of the Special Awards will go to Professor Zhanfeng Cui FREng and his team from the University of Oxford for the Oxford rapid viral RNA test for COVID-19. It can detect SARS-CoV-2 infection in 30 minutes and could be invaluable in developing countries because no specialist equipment is needed.


Early in the development of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK, it was feared there may not be enough ventilators to treat the projected number of seriously ill patients. VentilatorChallengeUK was formed to rapidly produce ventilators for the NHS and the 33-strong consortium brought together UK engineering businesses from across the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors to build 13,437 ventilators for the NHS.

Led by Dick Elsy CBE, who delayed his retirement to step up in the crisis, the initiative combined the knowledge and skills of 33 UK technology and engineering businesses across the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors, to produce more than 13,000 Smiths and Penlon ventilator devices for the NHS. 

At the time, Dick Elsy said: “This consortium brings together some of the most innovative companies in the world. Every day, their highly-skilled staff collaborate to create solutions that help millions of people, and this project is no different. They are working together with incredible determination and energy to scale up production of much-needed ventilators and combat a virus that is affecting people in many countries. I am confident this consortium has the skills and tools to make a difference and save lives.”

Ventilator, the Penlon teamThe consortium included Airbus, BAE Systems, Ford Motor Company, GKN Aerospace, High Value Manufacturing Catapult, Meggitt, Penlon, Renishaw, Rolls-Royce, Siemens Healthineers and Siemens UK, Accenture, Arrow Electronics, Dell Technologies, Smiths Group, Thales, Ultra Electronics, Unilever, Microsoft and UK-based F1 teams: Haas F1, McLaren, Mercedes, Red Bull Racing, Racing Point, Renault Sport Racing and Williams.

Medical ventilators are complex, multi-component units that must function perfectly in use. The aim was to scale-up, at incredible pace, the production of two devices. One was an existing design made by Smiths Medical, the paraPAC plus™, and the other was a new design based on existing technology from Oxfordshire-based Penlon.

Engineers identified that a hybrid device, modifying existing proven clinical equipment, would meet the requirements of the UK Government and NHS and could be rapidly manufactured, creating the Penlon ESO 2 Emergency Ventilator. The UK’s urgent need for this device saw the Consortium establish new production sites at speed while restructuring Penlon to keep pace with this industrial might. The Airbus wing factory in Broughton became aspirator assembly facilities and Ford Motor Company’s iconic Dagenham site in east London was converted to making the ventilator sub assembly with new production lines capable of delivering the highest quality medical devices in weeks.

A 3,500 strong front-line assembly team was drawn from other sectors and trained to work at seven large-scale manufacturing operations across sites in the UK at Ford, Airbus, STI, McLaren, Rolls-Royce and GKN Aerospace in Cowes and Luton. The teams using digital design software from Siemens had to adapt to the new age of social distancing and balance the twin imperatives of speedy delivery with absolute adherence to the regulatory standards needed to ensure patient safety.

The Consortium with consultancy from Siemens Healthineers achieved full MHRA approval for the Penlon ESO 2 device in just three weeks and it also secured an internationally recognised CE Certificate, allowing it to stay on market in the UK, at hospitals or in storage, for up to 10 years and allowing Penlon to support other countries in vulnerable situations with emergency ventilator devices.

When the government placed an order for Smiths paraPAC units, it became clear that vital test boxes could not be obtained. These test boxes were ‘one-offs’ using old tech and obsolete parts which were no longer in production. To overcome this critical hurdle, engineers at McLaren reverse engineered them by painstakingly modelling every component in 3D CAD to piece together a full specification for each test box and begin the procurement process. In April alone, the team worked the equivalent of more than 6½ years, delivering 144 test boxes of 13 different types.

In the midst of a global pandemic the Consortium set up new parallel supply chains and acquired around 42 million parts and electronic components through a complex logistics network. Despite global competition for parts and lockdown challenges the team sourced parts from over 22 countries. The Formula 1 supply base went from buying or manufacturing parts for the summer season’s F1 races to high volume ventilator parts at lightning speed and quality.

Professor Sir Jim McDonald FREng FRSE, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says: “The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest public health crisis of our time and has presented society with multiple challenges. Engineering expertise and innovation has been central to the global fight to save lives and protect livelihoods.

“I am also incredibly proud of engineers everywhere who have worked round the clock to maintain essential services, critical supply chains and infrastructure in unprecedented circumstances, using their training and skills to find innovative solutions to a host of problems and to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our daily lives.”

Professor Raffaella Ocone OBE FREng FRSE, Chair of the Academy’s Awards Committee, says: “Engineering skills—including innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration—have proved to be of vital importance during the current pandemic. We were delighted that the breadth of nominations for these awards reflected so much of the extraordinary work engineers have been doing. 

“While I am delighted that we are able to recognise some of these outstanding achievements with these awards I am mindful that the important work of the vast majority of engineers will remain largely outside the public’s consciousness. They are all deserving of our thanks and admiration for their continuing positive contribution to society.”