California space company uses engineering expertise to manufacture ventilators

Posted at 10:45 AM, Apr 10, 2020

Virgin Orbit, the Long Beach, California based space company, is taking a time out from launching rockets and is instead focusing on ventilators to combat a nationwide shortage of the lifesaving machines.

Orbit's CEO Dan Hart met with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and in a recent meeting, Hart told Newsom that among other things, windshield wipers are being used in the ventilator manufacturing.

The company normally focuses on the complicated science of putting a rocket into the atmosphere. Now, Virgin Orbit employees are working around the clock and using good old fashion engineering for this project, using aluminum and stainless steel.

They're also learning a lot. As it turns out, the Aerospace world isn't that different from the medical field.

“They are both industries that are high stakes, intense, that require incredible precision and reliability in tightly regulated environments, where you need to write all your instructions incredibly carefully,” explained Will Pomerantz, vice president of special projects for Virgin Orbit.

Their engineers and technicians, many of whom are doctors of a different kind, are in constant communication with a team of medical doctors trying to make the ventilators as simple as possible, in order to make as many as possible, without hampering functionality.

“You have a group of people who believe in making the world a better place, who are creative engineers, who love to problem solve and they’re willing to work 24/7 on this stuff,” said Pomerantz.

So far, only about a dozen have been made. But there's a reason for it.

“We don’t want to manufacture thousands of these only to figure out we need to make some tweaks to accommodate these regulations,” Pomerantz said.

This sort of device normally requires a lot of governmental approval, regulation, process and testing. However, lives are waiting, so projects like this one are on the fast track.

“What we’ve seen is people at every level people who are incredibly motivated to solve this problem and do whatever it takes,” Pomerantz said. “We are in an extraordinary situation where seconds matter and minutes matter."

In the meantime, the business of launching rockets is on hold. The company is working against a new clock, racing to beat a virus, getting people the crucial air they need and doing it on their own dime.

“It’s never hard to get aerospace people motivated,” Pomerantz said. “We chose to be in this job for a reason. But there is nothing more motivating than this crisis.”

Virgin Orbit ventilators are in the final regulatory stages. Once approved, they'll be pumping out 100 per week, and then, doubling that number thereafter.