Earlier this year, Elon Musk announced on Twitter that SpaceX would partner with medical device company Medtronic to help the company produce its most advanced ventilators, which are critical in the battle against the pandemic. Details of the two companies’ collaboration have been rather meager since then, with Musk simply noticing that SpaceX manufactured tubes for Medtronic.
In a recent post, Medtronic decided to share some key information about its work with Elon Musk and his private space venture. The history of the medical device manufacturer highlighted the value of Musk’s Silicon Valley-style approach to his companies, which emphasizes rapid innovation that is directed at developing practical, real-world solutions in the shortest possible time.
In a typical year, the Medtronic facility in Galway could produce approximately 7,500 valves for its flagship fan. But with the spread of COVID-19 around the world, the need for ventilators has increased rapidly and significantly. Medtronic promptly increased the production of its fans and, by mid-March, the Galway plant had increased its production by 40%. But that wasn’t enough. After all, fan construction is a complex process and machines require advanced components that are difficult to manufacture.
One such component is a proportional solenoid valve (PSOL), a highly complex machinery that controls the flow of air and oxygen inside the machine. The PSOL valve is comprised of over 50 parts and each must be manufactured with surgical precision, with some components having tolerances as thin as a strand of hair. Medtronic’s most advanced ventilator used three of these PSOL valves per unit, and as noted by Medtronic engineer Matt Phillips, the medical device company was virtually puzzled as to how it could meet the growing demand for its products.
And then Elon Musk called, and he came up with a unique and interesting proposal.
Musk’s private space company SpaceX, which made its mark in the industry with its reusable rockets and its Crew Dragon spacecraft, has offered to make PSOL valves for Medtronic. SpaceX proved to be the perfect partner for the medical device manufacturer, as it already had a division that designs and manufactures valves for its rockets. The engineers from the private space firm were top notch and had the technical experience to withstand the challenge. And with this began the collaboration of the two companies.
Demonstrating its quick approach to Silicon Valley-style problem solving, SpaceX wasted no time. COVID-19 wasn’t giving in, and neither was Elon Musk’s private space venture. SpaceX promptly converted part of its Hawthorne, Calif., Missile factory to produce PSOL valves with the help of Medtronic employees. To maximize mobility and speed, the team even built a PSOL valve production line on trolleys. Eventually, the SpaceX and Medtronic team achieved in months what would otherwise have taken years.
“They literally transformed a rocket manufacturing area into a ventilation valve manufacturing facility almost overnight,” said Phillips.
As noted by the Medtronics engineer, SpaceX did not skimp on its talent, with some of the engineers who worked on the Crew Dragon capsule working on the Medtronic project. Quality control was extremely high, with valves produced at the SpaceX site undergoing rigorous testing before being shipped to Galway.
“We had their best technicians. We had their best engineers. Some of the people working on this project are the very people who just launched the first private commercial crew on the International Space Station. They brought the same kind of energy into this project that they brought astronauts into space, ”Phillips noted.
“Ultimately, these fans will 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, ”added the Medtronic engineer.
Thanks in large part to the rapid initiative of the SpaceX team, the medical equipment company now has the capacity to produce 9,000 PSOL valves for Medtronic’s flagship ventilator over the next 8-10 weeks. This is roughly the same amount of valves that Medtronic’s Galway plant produced in 2019. The Galway plant, for its part, could now operate at five times the volume of its pre-pandemic operations.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life… This project has definitely changed the way I look at manufacturing, partnership and innovation. I know that, with the right focus and the right energy, we can take what we’ve learned from this project and apply it to other challenges that come our way, “noted Phillips.