Research to assess possibility of producing healthcare products like PPE at point of need

Media Relations Team, 26 June 2020

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Two people in personal protective equipment making surgical stitches.

Medics attending an incident or humanitarian crisis could be one step closer to manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE) and other critical healthcare products, thanks to research beginning next month. Led by the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), the research programme will support feasibility studies and bring together experts to determine the technology, supply chain and training required for Redistributed Manufacturing (RDM) of a range of healthcare products and treatments.

RDM is defined as technology, systems and strategies that enable localised and customised healthcare manufacturing. RDM can deliver life-saving benefits in medical scenarios where there is urgent and unforeseen demand, such as in response to pandemics, natural disasters and emergencies.

For instance, in the case of a pandemic, RDM could help containment of outbreaks through speed of response and localised manufacturing of protective gear, pharmaceuticals and even vaccines close to the outbreak.

Wendy Phillips, who is a Professor of Innovation at UWE Bristol and is leading the project, said: “COVID-19 has highlighted the lack of resilience of large-scale global production and supply networks, emphasising the need for more coordinated, distributed, and responsive supply of goods, and the relocation of production of critical equipment such as regulation-compliant PPE closer to the point of need.

“The recent pandemic has provided even greater impetus for research into RDM, particularly with respect to its impact on complex supply chains, such as those that exist in healthcare.”

The two-year project begins in July and has received £2m funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It will involve several virtual workshops, inviting experts from around the country in manufacturing, healthcare technologies, supply chain management and emergency medicine from the Universities of Loughborough, UCL, Cranfield, Sussex, Newcastle, KCL, Herriot Watt and UWE Bristol. Together they make up the Redistributed Manufacturing in Healthcare Network (RiHN).

They will discuss the challenges around RDM and will work with the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine to consider what is required for a system to deliver cost-effective, ‘right-first-time’ treatments close to the point-of-need.

Professor Phillips said: “When humanitarian, environmental or terrorist crises occur, the first hours are critical for saving lives or improving patient outcome - this new model of manufacturing could enable rapid diagnosis, production and testing in remote and changeable conditions.

“This project will enable us to identify which technologies have the most potential and which can be used in the field first. We will also look at how new processes will best fit together, as well as looking at the regulatory environment and what policy changes might be needed.”

RiHN is the first dedicated study of RDM in healthcare and the findings from its previous research have been of particular value to policy-makers and funders looking to specify action and to direct attention where it is needed.

This work could help pave the way for a future in which innovative manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing and advanced robotics are part of our everyday lives. For instance, we may be able to make medical products in our home, or print-on-demand personalised medicines at the supermarket while we shop. Bespoke devices such as prosthetics and orthotics could even be ordered online and delivered to our door the next day.

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