A challenge issued by the Montréal General Hospital Foundation and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, backed by a prize of C$200,000, has spurred engineers at flight simulator manufacturer CAE to design a prototype, easy-to-build ventilator.

Ventilators are used to keep patients’ lungs supplied with oxygen when they are unable to breathe on their own and are vital to keeping alive those with the most severe cases of Covid-19. Ventilators have been in short supply worldwide.

The unusual project nonetheless fits with a minor part of CAE’s business, producing simulators for medical training, and they were able to test the prototype on their simulation mannequins, which are fitted with simulated lungs.

CAE proposes to build 10,000 ventilators in three months, re-tooling part of the manufacturing line; they expect to have hundreds of people working on the assembly line. A single ventilator will take about five hours to build.

“We’re mobilizing the army,” declared Marc St-Hilaire, CAE’s Chief Technology Officer and Vice-President for Technology and Innovation. “This is a wartime effort, that’s why we’re seeing so much collaboration amongst everyone. We’re not in a competitive mode. We’re all proceeding forward on good faith, wanting to help Canada, wanting to save our parents, our neighbours, our friends. That’s what motivates everybody.”

The CAE design has fewer than 100 parts that cost about $5,000 per unit. CAE has the ability to make almost all of the electronics and metal parts in-house – except for the valves that control pressure.

However, St-Hilaire said the effort is short-term. Making ventilators will “definitely not” be a long-term part of its business model.

A dozen CAE engineers, together with their healthcare division’s chief medical officer, who happens to be a respiration specialist, designed the prototype in 11 days.

The device has not yet received Health Canada approval. “We have enough assurance from the government that we are proceeding ahead full blast,” St-Hilaire said. The company held a socially distant teleconference with more than 30 officials from the federal government about the prototype and CAE’s capacity for manufacturing ventilators.

Two other Canada companies are working to building ventilators: Cerebra Health’s “Winnipeg Ventilator,” designed by Dr. Magdy Younes, updated from a 1990s design used during the SARS epidemic, and engine-parts company Linamar, partnered with O-Two Medical Technologies.