From marinecraft to ventilators – Vikal meets the challenge

Fear struck the nation in March this year with the realisation that our critical supply lines for healthcare products could be overwhelmed as COVID-19 spread through our communities.

Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director of Composites Australia Inc.

Among the list of acute shortages were ventilators. This medical device takes over the body’s breathing process when the disease has caused the lungs to fail and which is said to provide the patient time to fight off the infection and their best chance of survival. With global supply chains compromised, and a limited manufacturing capability of ventilators in Australia, hospitals were desperately trying to procure supply.

For Lynden Vikingur, Director of Vikal International, the WA-based superyacht tender manufacturer the impending crisis was a calling. “With a global medical crisis looming, we had no choice but to address the challenge to produce the first ready-to-use ventilator, end-to-end from locally sourced components, and in the shortest possible time frame.”

“As boat builders, we are trained to think laterally. A qualified shipwright understands the science of materials with which they work and has transferable skills that can adequately build structures and components other than boats. “Indeed, many of the components we produce for our boats are actually more complex than the moving parts and flowing air of a ventilator, so it wasn’t difficult to fabricate our first working prototype. By the end of May, we had completed four different original prototype ventilators,” advised Lynden.

The first Vikal ventilator prototype was manufactured largely from CNC cut MDF, bonded and sealed with epoxies and structurally reinforced with fibreglass. The second prototype had the housing, cams and lever arm mechanism manufactured from CNC cut acrylic, all bonded together with 401 Loctite®. Subsequent prototypes (3.0 and 4.0) were manufactured using marine ply for the housing and lever arm that were sealed and bonded and painted with epoxies.

The ventilators required 316 stainless steel fixings including return springs and the main shaft.

Many of the components were made from the five large format 3D thermoplastic filament based printers in which Vikal has invested. The motor mounts, adaptor and mounting structure/bracketry as well as the thumb screws and cam quick change mechanism were 3D printed. As well as all the gearing – main gear/flywheel and reduction gearing mechanism(s) – along with the cams and cam assembly and various other internal custom components.

The first Vikal ventilator prototype - run by a window wiper motor - manufactured largely from CNC cut MDF, bonded and sealed with epoxies, with some structurally reinforcement in fiberglass.

The team experimented with various filaments and different plastics until it found what was appropriate. The motor driving the ventilator was a locally sourced 12v automotive unit that is low geared and has high torque. Various custom electronic monitoring and controls were manufactured in house by Vikal: 12v PWM based.

The WA Chief Scientist, Peter Klinken, was able to connect Vikal with the Department of Health to fast track the development of the ventilator. A modest government grant also part-funded the company to test its prototypes The next step is to take the concept to the Therapeutic Goods Administration to explore larger scale manufacturing opportunities.

Western Australia’s swift and strict border closure obviated the crisis and the state’s need for ventilators is now less urgent. Though according to Lynden, the need remains to support and enable all our domestic supply chains for essential, high-tech products like ventilators. “There is no need to rely on complex international supply chains. There are lots of SMEs in WA with capability to manufacture high tech products, all of which could translate into export opportunities. Most of us have the resourcefulness to adapt and pivot quickly,” says Lynden.