From parts for ventilators to initiatives to spur innovation, the connector industry is fighting the pandemic in an international effort that extends across every part of the supply chain.
The connector industry is uniquely positioned to directly aid in the fight against COVID-19. Connectivity products are essential to the manufacture of critical medical technologies such as ventilators and monitoring devices. Electronics companies have been deemed essential businesses in many regions and, even amid constraints, are supplying OEMs with the parts necessary to build the products needed to protect and care for people affected by the virus, while at the same time taking precautions to protect their employees.
Supporting Ventilator Production
Smiths Interconnect is working with medical technology organizations in Asia, the Americas, and Europe to deliver connectors needed for ventilator production. The company is building on existing supply chains and relationships to increase production of models that use Smiths’ connectors.
“We had to face a challenging, unprecedented scenario due to the pandemic. We worked with our supply chain to ensure prompt availability of the requested connector lines, with higher volumes and shorter lead times. We increased output while complying with applicable national and regional guidelines and applying all the necessary procedures to ensure the health and safety of our employees and those we work with,” said Paul Harris, VP Sales and Marketing, Smiths Interconnect.
Arrow Electronics has joined the UK government’s Ventilator Challenge UK Consortium and is contributing components and engineering support to the initiative, as well as to other ventilator production efforts in the U.S. and around the world. The company is also working with Abbott Medical to produce and distribute COVID-19 test kits.
Molex is manufacturing cable assemblies for ventilator production and working with new and existing manufacturers to meet global demand. The company’s extensive production footprint enables it to produce the necessary components quickly and in locations closest to manufacturing locations, and it has adjusted its production lines to prioritize the products most needed during the pandemic. Molex CEO Joe Nelligan said, “Many of the products we make are considered essential, especially for healthcare and for infrastructure. These include the connectivity and related products we provide for critical medical applications, including ventilators, respirators, and nebulizers. We are also producing face shields and parts for COVID-19 test kits.”
AVX has accelerated its production of its 9176 Series WTB connectors, as well as several passive components used in the production of ventilators and other medical technologies. HARTING is manufacturing cable assemblies for use in ventilators, working with existing customers to accelerate production, and prioritizing the production of these critical parts over all other activities to meet demand. Weeks before the pandemic impacted its facilities, the company anticipated disruptions and accelerated production in order to have adequate stocks of products available. HARTING also formed a special task force and pandemic team to coordinate these activities and implement protections for its employees. In addition, Würth Elektronik CBT is producing printed circuit boards for the manufacture of intensive care ventilators and mobile ventilators.
Demand Spurs Innovation
To supplement the production of existing ventilator designs, the engineering community is developing new ventilator designs with rapid production in mind, as well as features that meet the unique needs of COVID-19 patients. These designs range from simple electromechanical machines that can be inexpensively built in areas with limited resources to more complex electronic devices that integrate monitoring and reporting functions. The use of commercial components and systems adapted from existing technologies is helping to facilitate production.
Furloughed engineers with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) have developed a prototype for a simplified ventilator that assists patients in the recovery phase of COVID-19. Called the HEV, this ventilator calls upon technologies used in particle physics detectors and provides a more limited amount of breathing support for patients who have moved beyond the more intensive ventilation phase of the virus. Similarly, astrophysicists with the Global Argon Dark Matter collaboration have designed a simple ventilator that can be built for a few hundred dollars using commercial parts. The Mechanical Ventilator Milano is designed to be inexpensive and easily repairable. In addition, a team from the Laboratory of Instrumentation and Experimental Particle Physics in Portugal has presented a concept for a cost-effective ventilator (the Open Air Project) using a limited number of components to make it possible to build even in times of disrupted supply chains, when access to parts may be limited.
Vacuum maker Dyson designed its own ventilator, the CoVent, in 10 days using components originally used in the company’s air purification products. Gtech, a UK-based company that makes vacuums and electric bicycles, has also designed a new ventilator and made the full schematics and design details available for free. Marcos Mascorro, a robotics engineer, posted an open-source design for a ventilator that runs on a Raspberry Pi. The tiny, $50 computing device sets the air pressure, opens and closes valves, and can regulate whether a patient needs full or partial breathing assistance. Tesla has also created its own ventilator utilizing its Model 3 parts, including the backup battery system, controllers, sensors, and the vehicle’s dash screen, now re-envisioned as a monitor for medical professionals. (See a video of the Tesla ventilator prototype.)
Regulatory approval is still needed for these new devices, but some countries are relaxing those rules or expediting approvals in the interest of meeting urgent needs. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has relaxed some of its ventilator regulations, most notably the rules pertaining to materials, hardware, and suppliers. The new guidance recommends that components used in substitution adhere to relevant IEC, ISO, and other standards. In the UK, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has published a specification for its Rapidly Manufactured Ventilator System, which meets clinical requirements for a “minimally acceptable” ventilator for use in hospitals during the COVID-19 outbreak. Specifying connectors that meet medical standards will help facilitate approvals of new devices.
In some cases, designs that have already successfully navigated the regulatory process are going into production under new manufacturers. Medtronic and Tesla have teamed up to produce the medical technology company’s 10-year-old design for the Puritan Bennett 560 ventilator at Tesla’s Giga New York solar panel plant. Medtronic has also posted specs for the ventilator online to enable manufacturers across industries to quickly produce the lightweight, portable device. General Motors (GM) will produce 30,000 ventilators at its auto manufacturing plants using a design by Ventec Life Systems under the Defense Production Act. Ford, General Electric (GE), Virgin Mobile, and many other companies have also pledged to make ventilators; although, at this point, it is believed that many of these devices will go into stockpiles rather than immediate use, as they won’t be available in time for the peak infection periods.
In addition to aiding in ventilator production, many connector companies and suppliers have aided in the effort to alleviate shortages of personal protection devices to medical facilities. RS Components’ DesignSpark community has asked anyone with a 3-D printer to join the National 3D Printing Society’s initiative to produce and distribute personal protection equipment (PPE) to frontline medical staff in the UK. Avnet’s hackster.io has launched the COVID-19 Detect & Protect Challenge, calling upon the global design community to develop new technologies to aid in the fight against the virus.
Materion is producing highly precise optical filters used in systems that analyze test samples to identify the virus. TE Connectivity and the TE Connectivity Foundation have donated $1 million to Global Impact, a philanthropic organization, to distribute funds to organizations around the world that are working to supply medical personnel with PPE or conduct work to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Air Electro has teamed with ByoPlanet International to produce disinfectant-spraying devices used to sanitize areas to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Connector suppliers are also continuing to support communications infrastructure, which is under new pressure as millions of people around the world transition to work and school from home under social distancing guidelines. CommScope has donated equipment to the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center, a non-profit that provides communication needs to first responders and communities facing disasters in the U.S.
Products needed to support, expand, and protect connectivity fall under the critical services of Communications Infrastructure as defined by the United States Department of Homeland Security. Companies that support communications infrastructure are considered essential business and have been exempted from containment measures in Europe.
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on electronics supply chains, beginning with the first wave of lockdowns in Wuhan, China, in January 2020, which idled factories that produced many essential components and materials. Many factories in China have resumed operations, although at diminished levels, and suppliers are managing existing backlogs as well as priority orders for supplies needed to fight the virus. Distributors like Sager Electronics and TTI Inc. are tracking lead time trends and supplier statuses to give their customers a broader look at the impact of the virus on the electronics industry. As COVID-19 continues to move around the world, it will have an ongoing impact on manufacturing facilities and operations. The international response by connector companies will continue to have a significant impact on efforts to minimize the impact of the pandemic.