πŸ”’ PMB engineers ready to re-start ventilator production, “open source” blueprints

Almost 20 years ago, Clifford Machines of Pietermaritzburg stopped producing a ventilator specially designed for local conditions because public sector gatekeepers demanded bribes. Despite their advanced age, some of those ventilators are still in use in SA and Zimbabwean hospitals. Unwilling to participate in corruption, the company switched to selling other machines into the rest of the world. Today 95% of the R100m a year business’s products are now exported, mostly to the USA. But with the Covid-19 crisis making ventilators a strategic resource for SA, co-owner Iain Ambler says he’s dusting off the blueprints and updating the software, with an updated version of the ventilator due for completion next week. Ambler says as it will be impossible for his company to satisfy expected demand, he is willing to “open source” the ventilator’s blueprints, enabling other engineering companies to also start making these desperately needed lifesavers. – Alec Hogg

Alec Hogg: My old friend Melanie Veness who runs one of the best Chambers of Commerce in the country, The Pietermaritzburg Chamber, dropped me a WhatsApp this morning about one of her members, Iain Ambler, who joins us now with an innovative way to help the country fight Covid-19. Tell us a bit about your company – Clifford Machines.
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We’re a small business privately owned by myself and my partner Graham Reynor. Our turnover is roughly R100m a year. We are a mechatronics company, we specialise in design and manufacture of automated machinery. We export 95% of what we make. Our biggest market by far is the USA. We export about 65% of our turnover a year on special machines made for the USA. We have approximately 65 fantastic employees, who are enormously talented. About 25 of them are engineers and I believe they are the best engineers in the world. We’re very proud of our team. Despite the challenges of the lockdown, which is difficult for all of us here, we are rolling up our sleeves and determined to come out of this better and stronger on the other side. We are hoping for the same for the whole of South Africa.

All from Pietermaritzburg. You made ventilators in the past. Clearly there is a desperate demand for ventilators now, not just in South Africa but everywhere else in the world. Why did you stop making them?

Iain Ambler

We go back to 2003. I had been with the company for about 7 years. We developed a ventilator specifically for the African market – a simple, robust mechanical device that could be used by low qualified people. It had a battery backup in case of load shedding or power failures. It could be carried in an ambulance and to patients, and later plugged into the mains. Technically it was a huge success and we were very proud of it. In 2003 we ran into problems with corruption. We were expected to pay bribes for the units to be sold into state hospitals. We tried to resolve this issue, but as soon as we got around one problem, another would rear its head ugly elsewhere. Eventually we decided to walk away from it, which was a tragedy because the unit worked extremely well and we had some wonderful testimonies from paramedics, nurses and anaesthetists. The good news is this was stopped because of the corruption issue and not because of technical or suitability issues. We believe it is a fantastic unit and absolutely suited to the realities of Africa with the Covid-19 crisis.

Are you starting to make these ventilators again given the crisis of Covid-19?

Yes. We have taken our initial design, which has been well proven in a number of hospitals. We are in the process of upgrading it to work with modern control equipment as many of the previous parts are obsolete. We are also rewriting the software to suit this new componentry. Once the new unit we are building is ready, we will hand it over to the Pietermaritzburg hospital for initial testing.

How many of these ventilators would you be capable of rolling out?

It depends on funding. There is an altruistic side of this project. We would love to help South Africans in need of proper ventilators, however we need to provide employment for our employees who are sitting at home. That’s a real issue to us and we make no apology for that. We also understand that no one company can make the quantity of ventilators that is required for South Africa. Never mind other African and international countries. So we see ourselves working collaboratively in an open environment. We are willing to make the software available on the Internet as an open public IP. The irony is that because we are a small privately owned company in sleepy hollow Pietermaritzburg, we are not up against the larger corporations who are more likely to receive funding than us. Although the IDC are trying hard, and I give credit for that but in the end I suspect that the main funding will go to large corporates, behemoths and state owned enterprises, for example Denel. Ironically, small companies such as ours are well placed as we are flexible and can move quickly. We have highly capable engineers, we know what we’re doing because we build automated machines for a living and we have made ventilators before. That puts us streets ahead of where most people find themselves. We see this as an enormously positive opportunity for South Africa. However we need funding and assistance as we cannot do this on our own.

Have you managed to get hold of anybody in the IDC or in an area where the funds can be provided?

We made a big submission to the IDC on Monday. There are people in the IDC who are working extremely hard on this however we have not heard anything since. We understand they are busy and we don’t have an axe to grind with them, however we think because we are small and don’t have any political clout, this may count against us. We have a lot to offer, we are available and could contribute enormously. South Africans are good at rolling up their sleeves and moving forward during a crisis. We are part of the South African landscape and environment, it’s our country and we love it. There are people out there dying from Covid-19. We want to help our people who are stuck at home without an income.

How much funding do you need?

It depends on how many ventilators are required and the timeframe. We have all the skills to be able to build these machines quickly but we need to work with other companies or government, or any other organisations or investors to make this technology available. It’s important to know that this ventilator concept isn’t coming from our business, it was invented by a highly respected anaesthesiologist, Dr Donald Miller and an engineer Richard Scobee. They started this project 20 years ago. I want to stress that this machine was championed by a very smart doctor and has been involved in this for decades. Our opinion of the validity of this machine is based on the knowledge of Dr Miller and his colleagues.

When will you have your ventilator ready to be tested?

We are in the process now but the biggest bottleneck is getting some of the parts which are frustratingly stuck in customs at OR Tambo. We are working on getting all of those through. The software is also being updated. We are aiming to have a prototype of the updated machine finished the week after next, and it’s looking achievable.

So the idea would be to get the prototype, prove that it still works or work’s better than the original one, then try roll out as many as possible given that you get funding.

Yes.

Are any of the old machines available that were built pre-2003.

Yes, we have one available. There are a number running in Zimbabwe however we can’t get these as they are even repairing broken ventilators. There are a number of them in Edenvale hospital in South Africa but we have not managed to get any back. Apparently they were used after 18 or 20 years of operation. But we haven’t managed to actually locate one yet.