Operation: Hospitals

From developing intensive care equipment to tackling supplies of PPE and oxygen, here's how a group of Cambridge researchers gloved up, refocused and partnered with local hospitals during COVID-19.

Three new films tell the story.

Gloved hands

“The COVID-19 pandemic represented one of the greatest public health challenges of our time and had a huge impact on the NHS. We had to completely rethink how we did things and so it was hugely valuable to work with the IfM, which – in bringing in different perspectives and the skills – helped us to solve those problems.”

Dr Ewen Cameron, Executive Director of Improvement from Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

At the outset of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, hospitals across the UK needed rapidly accessible and innovative solutions to support the emerging operational challenges.

In Cambridge, the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) had been working on research in healthcare for over 30 years. This meant the researchers could respond quickly to the new challenges using past experience, mobilising students, staff and healthcare contacts across the city.

Working with Cambridge University Hospitals (CUH) NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Addenbrooke's Hospital, and Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, IfM was able to help the local hospitals make the best use of their resources by improving logistics and delivery of PPE, as well as by developing intensive care unit equipment.

As a result of the success of this work, a joint Cambridge University Hospitals Trust (CUH)–IfM panel has been launched so that local hospitals and researchers can continue working together for mutual benefit.

A new ventilator sharing device

The sheer number of patients admitted to hospital at any given time during the pandemic meant that ventilators could end up being in short supply. Working with anaesthetists at Royal Papworth Hospital and the Cambridge Design Partnership, researchers devised a compact, portable system to enable a single ventilator to be shared between two patients safely. This involved the accelerated design, prototyping and in-hospital testing of the system in just four weeks.

“Working on the ventilator sharing device really showed that where there is a shared passion to deliver a project – and you've got the collaborative partnerships – you can do it really quickly.”

Professor Ronan Daly, IfM

Logistics at a time of crisis

Students and staff at IfM joined forces with clinicians and estate management staff at CUH to tackle logistics brought to crisis point by the pandemic. The team applied industrial engineering approaches to model in-hospital patient flows, redesign COVID-19 testing procedures, and manage oxygen supplies and PPE donations to the wards.

“While you cannot fully compare a hospital with a factory, there are important similarities... [we knew] our training as engineers could be of help.”

Kaya Dreesbeimdiek, PhD student, IfM

Managing oxygen supply

As the number of patients needing an oxygen supply increased at the start of the pandemic, it was important for the hospital to be able to assess and manage supply risks. A team involving IfM graduate students unable to return home during the pandemic looked at oxygen flow through the local hospital by examining pipes and their layout, analysing usage by ventilator type and patient need, and modelling supply and demand.

“In terms of planning for future pandemics and emergencies, we are [now] in a much stronger and more robust place in terms of our understanding of our oxygen infrastructure.”

Ian Jackson, Estates and Facilities Management, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust


IfM was recognised by the Royal Academy of Engineering for its work during the COVID-19 pandemic with the President’s Special Award for Pandemic Service in 2020 – one of two Cambridge teams to be among the 19 winners.

IfM staff and students also received 31 ‘Covid Stars’ awarded by CUH to recognise professionalism, dedication, courage and overwhelming kindness during the pandemic.

IfM staff and students receiving Stars awarded by Cambridge University Hospitals

IfM staff and students receiving Stars awarded by CUH

IfM staff and students receiving Stars awarded by CUH

IfM was also named the winner of the special COVID-19 Response Award at the 2021 Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards.

“It is wonderful to have this opportunity to tell some of these stories and show the extraordinary effort involved from staff and students from across the IfM, Addenbrooke’s and Papworth hospitals. Most importantly, this is not the end. Our partnership will continue as we explore innovative ways to solve some of the pressing healthcare challenges of our time.”

Professor Tim Minshall, Head of IfM

Published 13 December 2022

Written by Elizabeth Tofaris
Design by Louise Walsh

Banner photo by Shannon Fagan/Getty images
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License