Hive innovation – self-sufficiency with a new twist?

In Britain, the once common idea of self-sufficiency vanished from public view several decades ago. The notion that ‘where things are made doesn’t matter’ has been wedded to ‘it doesn’t matter who owns the manufacturing’. All that matters is price, or so we were told. Primark, Tesco and Amazon rule. Where things come from is irrelevant. Supply fulfils demand. Always.

And then came the 2020’s Covid-19 pandemic. In these unprecedented circumstances, the inherent virtues of self-sufficiency have become all too clear once more. We have all learnt the hard way that supply chains are only as good as their weakest link. Currently, with many of those links broken, the government, the NHS and every family and individual are scrabbling around to match demand with supply. The demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), from ventilators through to face masks, as well as food and household products, such as yeast and baking flour, has outstripped supply.

What fascinates me is that the solutions we are coming up with are at one and the same time both global and local. The difference to what we’ve done over the past several decades is the emphasis on the local. Whereas Britain has always been keen to join in with international research programmes (in vaccines and antivirals), which I am glad it’s still doing, local initiatives have always (until now) received short shrift. The reason for this is financial. The City has hunted out the highest returns, wherever they might be in the world; venture capital has always encouraged the sale of startups to the highest bidder on flotation, wherever that owner is based. Suddenly this model appears under question. Locality matters once more.

As we’ve become aware that British invention does not equal British access, nor does German invention equal German access. Local research projects suddenly seem more important – and who owns what is now known to be critical. There are even reports of bidding for control of PPE supply taking place on the runways of China’s airports (1). Invention is not enough in itself. Who will have access to the Covid-19 vaccine if and when it’s produced is the big question. How much profit its sale makes once it is produced, is less important. At least, for now.

Getting hold of ventilators in that critical moment before Boris Johnson ended up hospitalised with the disease, required scouring the globe for every and any source of supply, writing begging emails to suppliers, making phone calls to heads of state, and pleading. It worked. We got sufficient supply… by the skin of our teeth.

This wasn’t going to be good enough in the longer term, and the government knew it. They put in place a call for UK manufacturers to supply ventilators – backtracking on the notion that all our needs could be met by outsourced manufacture. Suddenly we needed manufacturing capability on UK soil. This required innovation of the famous British “make do and mend” variety. Within days they received 13 separate proposals (2) and a new business model was born, one of collaboration between companies, where no one company owns the final product. All do. As a result, instead of individual corporate self-sufficiency and off-shoring, we now have hive innovation, a form collective self-sufficiency that we are all benefiting from.

Fast tracked ventilators

Two of the 13 ventures stand out in this regard: Project Pitlane, and The Ventilator Challenge UK (VCUK) consortium. Both are highly unusual in the degree of cooperation entailed; both have proved highly successful.

Project Pitlane is a consortium of seven Formula One teams, including Aston Martin, Mercedes-AMG, Renault and Red Bull. Normally rivals, they have come together to working jointly to help the NHS. Their project has produced the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device. The CPAP device provides a much gentler approach than a ventilator to help Covid-19 patients with lung infections to breathe more easily.

Project Pitlane has developed the device in cooperation with University College London (UCL) and clinicians at UCL Hospital. By reverse engineering an already existing device, they have been able to ensure rapid approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). This has enabled the manufactured product to be placed in hospitals within two weeks of the prototype being developed (3). An order for up to 10,000 devices has now been placed by the NHS, with 1,000 a day being built at the Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains technology centre in Brixworth.

The Ventilator Challenge UK consortium has resulted in the unlikely collaboration of companies from a range of diverse industries. As with Project Pitlane, several of the companies in the VCUK consortium are usually major competitors, including Airbus, Rolls-Royce, GKN and BAE Systems, as well as Ford and McLaren. Others in the consortium include Meggitt, Renishaw, Thales, Siemens and Ultra Electronics. Including suppliers, nearly 60 companies are involved in this cooperative venture.

While re-purposing production capacity is something that has long been talked of, this is a practical demonstration of how quickly it can be achieved once people put their minds to doing so. As well as providing factory floor production space and logistical know-how, the companies have worked together to redeploy some of their most skilled engineers on the ventilator effort.

VCUK now has two machines under production. Their first product is the Smiths’ machine, which started production on March 29th. This machine, the result of Project Penguin, involved scaling up production of a model already made in small numbers by the medical equipment firm Smiths Medical at its factory in Luton. The consortium has since received approval from the MHRA for a second design, the Penlon Prima ESO2 ventilator. This is product of Project Oyster, and involved making tweaks to a second existing design produced by the small Oxfordshire firm Penlon.

The VCUK production lines are in Broughton, Dagenham and Woking. Production of the Penlon ventilator will be in Oxfordshire. The government has ordered a total of 15,000 of the two machines and the consortium targets to raise production to 1,500 units a week (4).

The consortium has been facilitated by Catapult, the innovation centre set up by the government quango, Innovate, UK (5). Catapult’s expertise is in taking academic research in manufacturing and applying this to developing and scaling up production of new technologies and processes.

A model for the future of our planet?

This hive innovation approach, sometimes called a product development partnership, has been used successfully in several other areas, including the development of new malaria medicines, bringing academic research, industry and donors to work together under the same umbrella (6). The huge advantage of hive innovation is that the synergy it produces marries fresh perspectives with production capabilities. This same hive approach has now proved effective in tackling some of the problems thrown up by this pandemic, enabling businesses, academia and government to work together in innovative and creative ways.

The results demonstrate that when we are really serious about something that is going to affect our lives, we can find ways to achieve results quickly – remarkably so. Given that the usual development times (time to market) for medical devices is three to seven years (7), it is nothing short of a miracle that ways have been found to design, license, source, and manufacture new models of medical equipment in a matter of just a few weeks.

Covid-19 has shown us that achieving significant innovation is as much about shaping new relationships and collective responses to the challenges we face as it is about sharpening our focus and garnering resources.

Just imagine what we could achieve if we took the same approach and applied it to the challenges of the climate crisis. Yes, the climate challenges are even greater than Covid-19 – but that, surely, is the point – we need to treat the fate of our planet with an even greater sense of urgency than we give to the threat of SARS-CoV-2.

Our experience of this disease continues to be a very painful one. Hopefully, one of its benefits can be to give us new clarity, not only about what is really important in life, but also about the important role hive innovation and collective self-sufficiency can play in tackling the challenges facing the future of our planet.

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  • (6) One of the earliest product development partnerships is MMV:
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