The UCL-Ventura breathing aid: An insight into the emerging engineering practices of the 21st century

Introduction

The UCL-Ventura project is a project borne out of the coronavirus pandemic. Its objective was to provide a cheap, effective solution to the dire shortage of ventilator equipment in British hospitals. From conception to delivery, the project took a little over a week, drew on medical research networks spanning countries such as Italy and China, and brought together medical  and engineering expertise from multiple organisations, key amongst them being University College Hospitals,  Mercedes AMG HPP, the UCL Mechanical Engineering Department, and the UCL Institute of Health Engineering. 

What are the factors behind the success of this interdisciplinary, inter-organisational, multi-stakeholder venture? Clare Elwell, professor of Medical Engineering at UCL, has provided an inside story outlining what really transpired throughout the project. Hers is the story of human determination and endeavour; it is a story of human creativity  and innovation in the face of a cataclysmic crisis, and above all, it is a story of ordinary, passionate individuals making the most of their diversity to defeat a problem besetting all humanity. 

My objective is slightly different, though.  All over the world, reformist engineering educators have been preaching the gospel of 21st century engineering  to exasperated students and sceptical academic colleagues. The UCL-Ventura project is an embodiment of this gospel. In this blog piece, my objective is very simple. It is to highlight some of the 21st century skill sets that were deployed in this project. It is my hope that current engineering students will use this blog piece to make connections between their  studies and this project. It is one thing to talk of interdisciplinarity, collaboration and resilience, and another to actually point out and demonstrate their application in a real-life project. Increasingly we are exposing our students to short-duration, intensive, multidisciplinary projects as part of their studies. This blog piece, read in conjunction with Clare Elwell’s story will serve as a helpful case study to guide them as they prepare for these projects. For the engineering educator, my hope is that the UCL-Ventura project will serve as an excellent case study on 21st century engineering practices, and as a template for the development of realistic short duration, multidisciplinary student projects. 

What is 21st century engineering practice?

As many writers have pointed out, 21st-century engineering practice is fundamentally different from engineering practices of the past.This is because the world has become increasingly more complicated and complex. A large part of this is our increasing dependence on technology.  It is no longer possible for any one discipline to address all the problems, issues, or questions that we now face in the 21st century. Instead, problems now require interdisciplinary approaches that draw not only from engineering disciplines, but from the humanities and the physical, biological and social sciences. Not only that, the effective resolution of emerging 21st century problems now often requires a global approach that brings together knowledge and expertise from individuals and organisations drawn from different backgrounds, cultures and countries.  The current Covid-19 pandemic is a case in point. It is not just a medical problem for any one country; it is an all-embracing problem affecting all aspects of humanity, and spanning all the countries of this world. 

Essential Attributes and Skills for the 21st Century Engineer 

Most of the research on the essential graduate attributes and skills for those aspiring to become engineers in the 21st century emphasise that in addition to being technically sound, 21st century engineers should have a broad knowledge-base that goes beyond their field of specialisation, and they should also be equipped with a range of personal and interpersonal skills to enable them to carry out their roles (Abdulwahed et al, 2013). In general, such attributes and skills may include: teamwork, communication, inter/multidisciplinary knowledge, analytical thinking, ingenuity, creativity, technological innovation, business and management skills, leadership, ethics, professionalism, as well as understanding work strategies (National Academy of Engineering, 2004). 

Overview of the UCL-Ventura Project

This project required individuals from various organisations to come together  and contribute their expertise at various phases of the project. To start with, when the urgent need for ventilators became known,  Mervyn Singer, a professor of intensive care medicine at UCL Hospitals drew from his knowledge and expertise to identify an appropriate device type. In addition, he also had an awareness of someone with the engineering skills necessary to deliver the device – Tim Baker from the UCL Mechanical Engineering Department. 

Tim Baker has collaborated extensively with Andy Cowell and Ben Hodgkinson from Mercedes AMG HPP on the student Formula 1 project. As a Formula 1 company, Mercedes AMG HPP have expertise in fast track design and prototype manufacturing, and Tim was aware that this expertise was critical to the success of the project. From within Mercedes AMG HPP, Andy and Ben identified Jamie Robinson, Alex Blakesley and Ismail Ahmad as the people to lead on the fast track design and prototyping task. All three are UCL graduates.

 A team of engineers from UCL Mechanical Engineering and from the UCL Institute of Health Engineering was assembled to work alongside the  Mercedes AMG HPP team. Given the urgency of the situation, this collaborative team of UCL and Mercedes engineers were able to reverse engineer an existing product and have it ready for production within 24 hours. This required resilience and determination from everyone concerned. The fact that  Jamie Robinson, Alex Blakesley and Ismail Ahmad are UCL graduates may also have been a significant factor as the team needed to gel together and get up to speed almost from the very start.`

Before being put on clinical trials, the design had to be approved by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Regulatory approval is normally a very lengthy process, but the team were able to get this done within a few days. Credit for this was down to the familiarity of members of the team with the regulatory process, which led to the team’s decision to focus on reverse engineering a previously approved off-patent device, as opposed to making one from scratch. Another reason for this rapid regulatory approval may be down to the ability of the  UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering to tap into its partnerships with organisations and colleagues within the UK health system.

Unpacking the Skills and Attributes Deployed in the UCL-Ventura Project

The design and development process of the UCL-Ventura breathing aid consisted of several sub processes, some running in tandem and some running in parallel. Examples include design, ordering of components and subsystems,  manufacturing, fabrication and assembly, testing, documentation, and clinical trials. Effective project management and coordination was therefore critical, and the UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering drew from its experience to provide this. 

Clearly, the success of this project rested almost entirely on effective collaboration and team-working. The individuals and organisations that were brought together have worked closely, on and off,  for many years on several other projects. The assembly of the team was therefore not a random act, but was based on a clear understanding of what each partner would bring to the project. In the classroom, we are sometimes guilty of positing collaboration and team-working as one-off events. Clearly, this is not so. It takes time, money and effort to build effective collaborative partnerships within and beyond engineering, and this project succinctly demonstrates why this is a useful endeavour.

This project also demonstrates that the success of a collaborative project such as this one is dependent on access to various knowledge domains. For instance, the success of this project required knowledge of intensive care medicine, and of ventilators in particular. It also required fast track design and rapid prototyping expertise, product documentation and manufacturing knowledge. This is what we typically refer to as technical know-how.

The project could not have been successful without access to aspects of  expertise that we typically denigrate as soft skills. This includes creativity and innovation, two skills without which the idea of a ventilator could not have been brought into reality. It also includes an awareness of what is possible and what is not possible, from both a technical and regulatory viewpoint, which was important in the team deciding to go for an off-patent device as their starting point. Knowing who could do what and at what point was also important. This is network-domain knowledge that is acquired through years of developing, building and expanding professional relationships within and beyond organisations. 

Another aspect which was critical to the project was communication. This communication is both intra and inter-disciplinary , and is both within-organisation and inter-organisational.  Communication skills shared by the team enabled the transfer of knowledge from one disciplinary area to another,  and helped to facilitate a shared understanding of what needed to be done and when. The effectiveness of communication within this project team depended, in part, on the ability and willingness of team members to learn for each other, and their preparedness and ability to teach others (impart) what they knew. This falls under the umbrella of informal learning, and highlights why the ability to engage in self-directed learning is an important attribute in real-life projects.

Lessons to take forward

Can the skills exhibited in this project be taught, as Shuman et al (2005)  asked at the beginning of the 21st century? The answer is certainly yes, but how can they be taught? Certainly, these are skills for practice, and as skills for practice they are best taught through practice. This is the reason why team-based projects are now a standard staple within engineering schools. The real question, however, is how effective are current approaches to team-based projects within engineering schools? Clearly, the design and implementation of such projects is not as easy as taking a walk down the path. However, practice within engineering schools seems to indicate otherwise. Almost as a routine, academics are assigned to design and lead team-based project learning without the requisite training and support. And with regard to the assessment of such activities, how certain are we that the assessment is fit for purpose? Too many times, I have witnessed  assessors adopt a confetti approach to the awarding of project marks. What is the meaning of these marks – certainly no one knows for certain. So if anything, the UCL-Ventura project, alongside many other projects that have been rolled out during this coronavirus crisis, should force us to rethink and re-evaluate the way we do team-based projects. There is a long way to go, and these projects are a useful template to adopt and learn from. 

References

National Academy of Engineering. 2004. “4 Attributes of Engineers in 2020.” The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10999.

Shuman,L, Besterfield-Sacre, M. and  McGourty ,J. (2005). The ABET Professional Skills – Can They be Taught? Can They Be Assessed? The Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 94, No. 1 

Abdulwahed, M., Balid, W., Hasna, M. O., & Pokharel, S. (2013). Skills of engineers in knowledge based economies: A comprehensive literature review, and model development. In Proceedings of 2013 IEEE International Conference on Teaching, Assessment and Learning for Engineering (TALE) (pp. 759-765). IEEE.

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