VMAC of Nanaimo has fabricated parts, now undergoing testing in the U.S., for a low-cost prototype ventilator designed at the University of Minnesota. (Photo courtesy VMAC)

Nanaimo air compressor business helps manufacture parts for COVID-19 fight

VMAC has crafted parts now being tested in prototype ventilator created at University of Minnesota

A Nanaimo manufacturing company has joined ranks with those across Canada fighting the fallout of the coronavirus.

VMAC, renowned for its vehicle mounted air compressors, has fabricated components for ventilators currently being tested in the U.S., and could also soon be programming its 3-D printers to create plastic frames for face shields used in local hospitals.

Tod Gilbert, VMAC president, said the company reached out to various levels of government and other groups in Canada and internationally to see what kind of services and support it could offer to other manufacturers and research organizations.

“We’re doing a little bit, but it’s not a major thing. That’s one thing I just want to say off the top. I definitely don’t want it to appear like we’re trying to promote in this difficult situation…” Gilbert said. “We’re not saving the world here. We’re just doing what we can.”

VMAC got in contact with the University of Minnesota, where Dr. Stephen Richards, anesthesiology fellow, partnered with the university’s medical device centre – part of the UMN’s College of Science and Engineering – to create prototypes for a low-cost mechanical ventilator designed to be simple and cheap to manufacture and easily deployable. Two prototypes, now called the coventor, according to the university’s website, have tested successfully.

“We’ve made two small batches of parts … and overnighted them to [UMN] so they’re conducting tests,” Gilbert said. “They’re doing tests to try and get rapid FDA approval of it.”

He said he’d heard the tests are going well and what VMAC has asked, in return, is that it get a copy of the finalized design of the ventilators, which the university will make open-source.

“So that if things went totally sideways here, we could make as much as we can, as far as parts,” Gilbert said. “This is not something that’s approved by the Canadian medical system yet. As you can appreciate, if the situation does get dire, requirements will get lower, as far as testing and all the rest of it, so we just want to be ready if it comes to that. Hopefully, it’s not needed.”

The company has 3-D printers which can churn out a few plastic parts, such as face shield frames, but its capability to fabricate metal parts on its computerized lathes is where VMAC excels when it comes to mass production. Gilbert said, running its lathes semi-automated, VMAC could produce thousands of metal sub-components for devices daily.

He said the morning of April 1 that VMAC hasn’t started production of any 3-D printed parts yet, but hoped to get the files to start printing face shield frames that day.

The company has also raided its container of emergency supplies, which included hand sanitizer and about 100 N95 masks, which were donated to local hospitals, along with the company’s spare face shields.

Gilbert said VMAC has been working through Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, the Canadian government’s online procurement page at http://buyandsell.gc.ca and with other government connections, including Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP Paul Manly.

“It’s unfortunate, the conditions that are creating this, but it’s nice to see that people are beyond political and country and city lines,” Gilbert said. “We’re all in it together and offers of support – I think the federal government announced they had over 3,000 manufacturing companies offer support – it’s unbelievable.”

READ ALSO: Vancouver Island’s ‘Project Draw Breath’ expands and diversifies to battle pandemic

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Employees in VMAC’s machine shop where small components have been milled and sent to the U.S. for testing in a prototype ventilator developed at the University of Minnesota. (Photo courtesy VMAC)

VMAC of Nanaimo. (CHRIS BUSH/News Bulletin)

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