TORONTO – How does a Canadian aerospace company principally known for manufacturing flight simulators and pilot training add new ventilators for battling COVID-19 to its production line? With remarkable dispatch, apparently. Within two weeks of a public challenge to design user-friendly, easily built ventilators, Montreal-based CAE Inc., formerly Canadian Aviation Electronics, began gearing up to distribute 10,000 units of its newly created ventilator over the next three months.

“This is going very, very fast,” Erick Fortin, director of engineering, innovation and project management, CAE Healthcare, told BioWorld. “We put together 12 engineers who worked day and night so that after 10 days we actually have a functional ventilator prototype. We realized [that] with our expertise and health care background we could really do this.”

Like water to wine

Since it was established 10 years ago, CAE’s health care division has focused on the design of surgical simulators and mannequins equipped with electromechanical lungs that simulate intubation and ventilation techniques medical trainees need to become full-fledged doctors. Central to the technology are sensors that replicate the signs and symptoms real people present in actual medical emergencies.

“Mannequins in training scenarios and in testing made a lot of sense to us,” said Fortin. “Today, you can run thousands of different scenarios on our mannequins, including COVID-19 scenarios.”

In March, CAE’s task was not simulation but applying its sensor technology to the manufacture of an actual ventilator. Once construction of the initial protype was complete, Fortin’s team began readjusting the design to make it production ready. In CAE’s case, this is made easier by vertical integration both on the electrical and electronic sides of production.

“As much as possible, we are using parts [that] we can produce ourselves,” Fortin said. “For those we can’t, we’re working as hard as we can to secure them through the supply chain.”

Rendering of the ventilator prototype. Credit: CAE Inc.

A premium during the pandemic also has been placed on ventilator portability, one aspect of CAE’s ventilator prototype nearing completion, Fortin noted. The biggest challenge is not on the engineering side, however. “We have the electrical, mechanical and software engineers to pull this off,” noted Fortin. It’s the regulatory hurdles CAE typically must leap over to get its health care products approved for use.

“We’re working on multiple levels to get things done rapidly while making sure our ventilators meet all the requirements set by the regulatory authorities, including Health Canada,” said Fortin. “The other challenge remains the supply chain because we are talking about thousands of units that will require continuous distribution.”

Federal officials are keen to know how much capacity will be available to build CAE’s ventilator beyond its main manufacturing plant in Montreal. To that end, the firm is in discussions with other manufacturers to help meet contingent production demand for the 10,000 ventilators CAE promised in early April. “Our objective is to have a first batch available in about three weeks,” said Fortin.

Cutting costs

With a market value of approximately CAD$4.2 billion (US$3 billion) in revenue, surgical and medical simulators account for about 4% of CAE’s annual revenue. But like others, the publicly traded company has struggled with COVID-19’s impact on the bottom line.

To cut costs, CAE reported April 6 that it was temporarily laying off 2,600 of its 10,500 employees and freezing salaries for some of its staff. Fortin is clear about one thing: CAE’s ventilator is not designed to lift the company’s fortunes. “That’s not why we’re doing this. We’re doing this strictly for humanitarian reasons.”

Adding to the humanitarian challenge is ensuring CAE’s staff remains healthy in the middle of the pandemic. For those unable to perform their work at home, the company quickly implemented strict social distancing rules at its offices and Montreal plant. It’s also working hard to increase the number of personal protective equipment available to staff, a commodity in short supply for everyone, Fortin said.

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