Oct 6, 2020

A Ventilator Valve Victory

Backed by founder Elon Musk, for a limited time SpaceX will manufacture a key component for the most advanced Medtronic ventilator.

As COVID-19 cases erupted around the globe, Medtronic faced an unprecedented demand for its ventilators, which can help play a critical role in the management of patients with severe respiratory disease.

At first, Medtronic Engineer Matt Phillips wasn’t sure how the company was going to supply enough ventilators to meet the surging global need. Then Elon Musk called with a proposal.

PSOL valve picture
PSOL valve
The PSOL valve controls the flow of air and oxygen inside the most advanced Medtronic ventilator.

Space Exploration Corporation (SpaceX), Elon Musk’s California-based company that manufactures and operates the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft, offered to make a critical component of the most advanced Medtronic ventilator — a proportional solenoid (PSOL) valve, a highly complex piece of machinery that controls the flow of air and oxygen inside the device.  

SpaceX converted part of its rocket manufacturing facility in Hawthorne, California, to produce the PSOL valves with help from a team of Medtronic employees. In a matter of months, the two companies have achieved what might otherwise have taken years. The end result? Medtronic will continue to increase the size of its stockpile of these critically important ventilator components.

“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” said Phillips, who manages a ventilator research and development team in Carlsbad, California. “The partnership came together so quickly, and everyone moved with a sense of urgency and purpose because we knew people’s lives were on the line.”

Valve production set for lift off

Built at a Medtronic facility in Galway, Ireland, the company’s most advanced ventilator is a staple in many hospitals where critically ill patients need acute respiratory care. By mid-March, Medtronic increased production at the facility by 40% to meet the demand created by the pandemic. Today, the facility can operate at five times its pre-pandemic volume.

PSOL cross sectional
Cross section of PSOL valve
The PSOL valve, alone, consists of more than 50 parts.

But building ventilators is complex and requires a skilled workforce, a rigorous regulatory scheme, and a strong global supply chain. The PSOL valve alone consists of more than 50 parts, including some components with tolerance for accuracy as thin as a strand of hair. Each of the company’s most advanced ventilators contains three PSOL valves. In a typical year, Galway would produce approximately 7,500 valves. With the pandemic, the production accelerated to five times that amount.

Still, more valves would be needed.

Enter SpaceX.

Musk reached out to Medtronic in March with a plan to help manufacture ventilators. Since the pandemic began, Medtronic has not only shared the design files for a low-acuity ventilator, but also worked with several companies to help accelerate ventilator production. These include Baylis Medical Company, Inc. in Ontario, Canada; Foxconn Technology Group, a global manufacturer with operations around the world; the Tata group in Mumbai, India; the Walton Group in Bangladesh; and Vingroup Joint Stock Company in Hanoi, Vietnam. 

Ultimately, Medtronic and SpaceX decided to collaborate on proportional solenoids (PSOLs), a valve technology used by both the aerospace and ventilation industries.

“The Medtronic team in Galway was always up for the challenge,” said Pat Cunningham, a senior program manager in Galway.  “We worked in partnership with SpaceX to make sure everyone had the resources and support they needed to get this project across the line.”

SpaceX was the perfect partner for the venture, explained Phillips. The company has a division that designs and manufactures valves for its rockets and, like Medtronic, has the technical minds needed to take on such a daunting engineering challenge.

“We had their best technicians. We had their best engineers,” he said. “Some of the people working on this project are the very people who just launched the first private commercial crew to the International Space Station. They brought the same kind of energy to this project that they brought to putting astronauts into space.”

From rockets to ventilators and back again

Medtronic first shared its drawing of the PSOL valve with SpaceX in early May. But before SpaceX could begin producing the valves, the company had to convert a room at one of its California facilities. Where the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule components once came together, the team built a manufacturing line on carts for maximum mobility and speed.

group shot of spaceX team

SpaceX team photo
SpaceX team members who partnered with Medtronic to produce critical valves

“They literally turned a rocket production area into a ventilator valve manufacturing facility almost overnight,” Phillips said.

The valves made by SpaceX undergo rigorous testing procedures before being shipped to Galway for more tests. These tests ensure the valves meet all necessary safety requirements, giving SpaceX the greenlight to start producing them en masse.

“When it comes down to it, these ventilators are going to save lives,” Phillips said. “So every component has to be perfect. There is no room for error, which is why we put these valves through such an intensive testing protocol.”

The company will make approximately 9,000 valves for Medtronic ventilators over the next eight to ten weeks. That amount is roughly the same as the Galway plant produced last year.  

With the increase in production at Galway and the contributions from SpaceX and other companies, Medtronic anticipates meeting the demand for its ventilators in the months ahead when the pandemic overlaps with flu season in many parts of the world.

“This project certainly changed the way I look at production, partnership, and innovation,” Phillips said. “I know that, with the right focus and the right energy, we can take what we learned from this project and apply it to other challenges that come our way.”