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.
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 factory in Hawthorne, Calif., 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, Calif. “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.”
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 Medtronic’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, but Medtronic would need more valves. Enter SpaceX.
Musk reached out to Medtronic in March with a plan to help manufacture ventilators. Ultimately, Medtronic and SpaceX decided to collaborate on PSOLs, a valve technology used by both the aerospace and ventilation industries.
“We had their best technicians. We had their best engineers,” Phillips said in a news release from Medtronic. “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.”
Medtronic first shared its drawing of the PSOL valve with SpaceX in early May. SpaceX converted a room at one of its California plants, building a manufacturing line on carts for maximum mobility and speed.
“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. The company will make approximately 9,000 valves for Medtronic ventilators over the next five to seven weeks — roughly the same amount as the Galway plant produced in 2019.
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.”